STAFF and customers at a North Vancouver coffee shop are racing against time to save a former employee's life.
Janette Camba, 37, who has been a familiar face at the Tim Hortons on Queens Road since she moved to Canada four years ago, is suffering from severe kidney failure and is in desperate need of a transplant. Her ailment, however, has triggered the cancellation of her visa, forcing her to return to her home in the Philippines this week. With no medical coverage and no funds to pay for the operation, Camba's deportation will be her death sentence - unless, that is, her colleagues can raise enough money to save her.
With more than $10,000 raised so far, it looks like they might just be able to do it.
When Camba arrived in Canada in July 2008, she was in good health, having passed the medical exam required as part of her visa application. She went to work right away at Tim Hortons, which had sponsored her foreign worker visa in an effort to shore up a staffing shortage.
Things went well until 2010 when, following a hospital visit to be tested for gout, Camba's kidneys began to shut down. The decline was rapid, with the organs losing function at a rate of several per cent a month. She was soon undergoing hemodialysis at St. Paul's Hospital three times a week. As of September, she had only six per cent kidney function.
Throughout the ordeal, Camba's boss, Robert Norton, has continued to apply for permit extensions, knowing that if she were forced out of the country, she could die.
But a technical problem with an application last year tripped up the process, and in March her work permit was revoked. Camba was allowed to stay in the country while her employer relaunched the application process, but she could no longer keep her job.
The hospital continued to treat her for compassionate reasons, but with no medical coverage, the unpaid bills began to mount up. Over the summer, the federal government got wind of the situation and cancelled her applications. At the end of August, she was told she had 30 days to leave the country.
"We tried every option we could think of to keep her here," said Norton. "We talked to a couple of lawyers as well, and the lawyers said: 'Look, when you get that kind of a paper, you can fight, but in the end you'll lose.'"
Knowing Camba would die within about 10 days if she returned to the Philippines - where hemodialysis is beyond her means - Norton did the only thing he could think of. He launched a fundraiser.
Camba's brother has volunteered to donate a kidney, but the transplant procedure, which would take place in her home country, costs $24,000. With permission from Tim Hortons, Norton began a drive at his Queens Street store and at the two other outlets he owns on Marine Drive and on Mountain Highway. The shop made up posters and T-shirts, and about two weeks ago, staff began asking customers to chip in a small amount to help save their former colleague.
The response was huge.
"We've had Janette there a couple of days, and people loved it," said Norton. "She really connected with all the customers over the three years (she was here). We have a lot of regular customers. . . . They've been extremely generous - really, really good."
Within about a week, the Queens Street store had raised close to $10,000 and the other outlets had brought in another $1,000.
Camba was stunned by the outpouring of support
"I feel so overwhelmed," she said. "They are really helping me. . . . I'm so grateful to my employer."
Camba was scheduled to fly home Friday, and Norton plans to continue the effort while she's gone. Her departure has cranked up the pressure, however. Hemodialysis runs to about $500 a week in the Philippines, meaning the funds the restaurant has gathered will begin to erode even as staff continue to drive for the $24,000 mark.
Norton thinks they can do it, however. The effort has attracted media attention, and he has begun approaching other franchise owners for help.
If they succeed and the transplant goes well, the restaurant hopes one day to bring Camba back.
"She would have to be healthy enough to pass (the required medical exam)," said Norton. "If she (does), she would come back to Canada; if not, the idea is at least she would have a healthy life and could work in the Philippines and support her family.
"That's the No. 1 priority, that she stays alive."