This was to have been the year of Helena Blanchfield's comeback from the cancer she never had, the year she resumed living the life she'd left off five years ago when a doctor wrongly told her she'd be dead of cancer in less than 12 months.
The medical malpractice trial had ended, and the $400,000 the court had awarded her seemed an answer to her financial worries. Though she could never get back all that she lost -- her job, her house, her fiance -- she looked forward to regaining her health. Most of all, the 48-year-old former Prince George's County school bus dispatcher wanted to be the spunky woman she had been before she was caught up in a medical nightmare.
But the suffering of Helena Blanchfield, which included chemotherapy treatment that made her sick, weak and disoriented, 20 days in a hospital filled with dying cancer patients and the ordeal of planning her own funeral, has not ended. A year after her trial, she has not collected a cent of the settlement, which still is being argued through the long, laborious appeals process. A ruling last week by the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis makes it possible that she may never get any of the money.
Blanchfield feels frustrated, bitter and depressed. She never had cancer, she never worried about getting cancer. Now she is obsessed with the disease, and according to testimony at her trial the chemotherapy increased her chances of getting it.She says the stress has done terrible things to her memory and her ability to concentrate; she says she drifts off in the middle of conversations and forgets things she's always known. She sleeps with the light on in the bathroom just outside her bedroom but wakes up in the middle of the night anyway.
"I have nightmares, horrible nightmares. In my dreams I have cancer. I truly have cancer. . . . I've never dreamed my death, just waiting for it," she said this week in her Laurel Park apartment with the yellow dotted Swiss curtains at the windows and the copper music box from California that plays what would have been her funeral song -- the theme from The Sting.
"I wish everything wouldn't have happened," she said. "I knew exactly where I was going. I felt good. My kids had all turned out fine. I had a terrific relationship. I was to be married. Finacially, I was making progress. I had a nice car. There wasn't anything that wasn't nice in my life. . . That doctor certainly messed up my life."
Blanchfield was raised a strict Catholic, and she finds solace in her faith. "No matter what God does, good or bad, there is a reason for it all." She thinks the reason for her suffering may be the other cancer victims and their relatives. From all over the country and the world, they telephone and write her letters. To them, she is a heroine and a source of hope -- the woman who didn't have cancer after all, the woman who got a second opinion.
"I didn't die," she said. "I'm still dangling there. But this worries me, this stays at the back of my mind. Sometimes I think it will drive me crazy. It seems like each time I get started back up the ladder, I get knocked down again. It doesn't seem fair."
Again and again, she dreams about the afternoon of March 23, 1976, three days before her son's wedding, when a Harvard and Jefferson Medical College-educated blood and cancer treatment specialist named Dr. Lewis H. Dennis told her she had multiple myeloma.
"I said, 'What's that?'"
"He said, 'Cancer of the bone marrow.'"
Blanchfield, who had two operations in her life, a tonsillectomy and a hysterectomy, had never heard the term bone marrow. "I said, 'What bone? Can't we just cut it out?'
"He said, 'No, you misunderstood. You don't have bone cancer. This is cancer of the bone marrow. This is throughout your body."
Blanchfield said Dennis told her she had from a month to a year left. He prescribed chemotherapy. "I looked up at him like he was the best thing in the world. He was going to try to help me."
She drove home that day and told her children -- the youngest, Rose, was 13 at the time -- she was dying. Their father had died four months after the Blanchfields were divorced in 1972.
Blanchfield immediately began chemotherapy. She quit her job at the bus lot, where in 12 years she'd worked her way up from bus driver to assistant foreman. Sh remortgaged her house to have enough money to pay her bills. She told the man she loved she didn't want to see him anymore.She bought a $25 blond wig from Montgomery Ward. "I was told I would lose my hair," she said. Her hair never fell out. Instead it turned from blonde to gray.
Six months after Dr. Dennis's diagnosis, Blanchfield, at the urging of her children, traveled for additional tests to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. There she was told she had never had cancer.
Now Blanchfield wants to know everything about cancer. She searches through newspapers and magazines for articles about it. She gets invitations to speak to groups such as the Arlin J. Brown Information Center, Inc. -- "Dedicated to Victory over Cancer Ignorance." She reads books like "Medical Heretic" and "Now That You've Got Cancer What Will You Do?"
She brands chemotherapy a killer. Nutrition therapy, she says, is the only answer. She consults a nutritionist, blends her own carrot juice and swallows a handful of vitamins each day.
Her lawyer, Marvin Ellin, says, "She just can't shake the shock. She's a compulsive talker on the subject."
Dennis, who said after the trial that his former patient had suffered "no injury," won't talk about the case. His lawyer, Paul Mannes, said, "Apparently, Mrs. Blanchfield wants to talk about it. That's fine. But I won't talk about a case that's still in litigation."
Last week, the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis revoked Blanchfield's settlement on a technicality: The judge in the case hadn't told the jurors that the award would not be taxed. Ellin said he will ask the Court of Appeals to review the decision. There could be a new trial or a new settlement reached out of court. Or the Court of Special Appeal's decision could stand. The finding of negligence in the case was not affected by last week's ruling.
Blanchfield told her story once before a jury. She told it hundreds of times to the world, on television and radio and in newspapers and magazines. A production company in Los Angeles talked about making a movie of her life, with "Dallas" actress Susan Flannery as the star.
Blanchfield's 25-year-old son Joe bought her a telephone answering machine to handle the hundreds of calls she gets. "A 50-year-old woman called me from her hospital bed in New York at 9 a.m.
She said, 'Are you the proper Mrs. Blanchfield?' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'I'm calling to tell you I don't have cancer. I have an inflammation of the bowel.' She was to have had a colostomy and then her brother read about me and told her to go to New York and have more tests done.
"A man called from Pennsylvania to tell me his mother had been diagnosed as having cancer. She got a second opinion and it turned out all she had was a fractured hip.
"The children of an 80-year-old woman called from Indiana. She was diagnosed as having multiple myeloma six years ago. She's still living."
Blanchfield returns every call. "You listen to them, it's like hearing a piece of your own life. They cry and you cry. I'm even more emotionally involved now. Before, it was just me and my family.Now my heart goes out to everyone who dingalings on my telephone."
Two of Blanchfield's four children, aged 19 to 28, live in Laurel. The family is close. Joe, who runs a furniture restoration business, worries about his mother. "She's been through five years of basic hell. It's just dragging out too long. She doesn't know what to do or where to go."
He said his mother worked as a clerk in a High's store for a few weeks, but she had trouble concentrating and the job didn't last long. She got her real estates sales license, but she says once, in the middle of drawing up a contract on a house, she forgot how to do it.
She talks with a psychiatrist about these things, about the sadness and the disappointment. But there are good days, too. This winter she saw Florida for the first time. Her children comfort her. Joe vows his mother will live in a house again soon. And Helena Blanchfield, whose two roommates at Sloan-Kettering both died, is alive.