North Vancouver donations save Filipina barista's life

Temporary worker sent back to Philippines gets kidney transplant after NV fundraising

FOR Janette Camba, coffee turned out to be very, very good for her health.

The former North Vancouver barista can thank that morning cup of java - or more precisely, those of her former customers at the Queen's Road Tim Hortons - for playing a significant part in saving her life.

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Camba, who was a familiar face at the coffee shop for more than three years, is now back in her home country of the Philippines, recovering from a life-saving kidney transplant, paid for by almost $30,000 in donations raised in North Vancouver.

"The story has a happy ending," said Robert Naughton, Camba's former boss and owner of three Tim Hortons coffee shops in North Vancouver. "I feel very thankful for that."

That wasn't always the way Camba's saga was heading. 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 temporary foreign worker visa.

But within six months, Camba's health deteriorated and she was diagnosed with rapidly progressing kidney disease, with her organs quickly losing function.

She was soon undergoing hemodialysis at St. Paul's Hospital three times a week. Although Camba could no longer work throughout the ordeal, Naughton continued to apply for permit extensions, knowing that if Camba were forced

out of the country, she could die. But eventually, Camba's illness prompted the Canadian government to cancel her visa, forcing her to return to the Philippines.

"I got a phone call from hospital," recalled Naughton. "They said, 'You realize if Janette goes home, if she doesn't receive treatment within 10 days she will die.'"

Naughton knew that Camba had no medical coverage and no way to pay for a transplant or hemodialysis. With the date of Camba's departure looming, Naughton sought the permission of Tim Hortons and launched a desperate last-ditch fundraising effort to save her life.

The response, he said, was overwhelming. "She was very well-liked and quite loved actually," he said. "People were very generous."

The campaign managed to raise $29,000 in about six weeks last fall.

Camba, however, wasn't out of the woods yet.

While her brother had volunteered to donate one of his kidneys, tests revealed he wasn't a good match. New tests were ordered for Camba's younger sister, who also volunteered to donate a kidney. This time, the match was perfect.

"Everything was lined up for her to have the operation and she got a bad infection," said Naughton. That delayed the procedure again.

In the meantime, the money raised for the operation was going to pay for the hemodialysis needed to keep Camba alive.

"I got nervous at the end," said Naughton, as the funds began to dwindle. "We just made it."

In January of this year, however, the transplant operation finally went ahead, paid for by the North Vancouver fundraiser.

It was a success, said Naughton, and Camba is recovering well.

Camba has kept in touch with her old friends and colleagues from North Vancouver. "She was emailing us from the hospital," he said.

Another Tim Hortons employee recently went back to the Philippines for a visit, and stopped in to see Camba while he was there.

"He came back and told us she looked great and was doing well," said Naughton.

Naughton added while he'd love to bring Camba back to Canada, realistically that's unlikely with her medical needs. "She has to take medication for the rest of her life," he said.

Camba still struggles to pay for the anti-rejection drugs she must take, he said.

If not for the money raised here, she definitely could not have paid for the operation or for continued hemodialysis, he said - and there are no other options in her country.

Alvin Koh Relleve, a North Vancouver resident and leader in the local Filipino community, said sadly, Camba's situation is common to those without private health insurance in the Philippines. While those who can pay - including increasing numbers of western "medical tourists" - have access to top-quality care in his home country, those who don't have the cash are usually out of luck.

As part of his work in the Filipino community, Relleve has been promoting a health care insurance program available to Filipino foreign workers both in Canada and around the globe.

For about $20 a month - paid by the worker in Canada - the company provides health care benefits to dependent family members back home in the Philippines.

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