Tonya’s ticking bomb

The house that Tonya Passage and her husband rent in a working-class section of Wyandotte is fractured and broken. One of the outside doors doesn't open. The stairs are creaky. But inside, it's remarkably clean and neat. It is decorated with coverlets and paintings that reflect her heritage as a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Band of Chippewa.

Passage, 29, is sitting on a couch draped with an Indian quilt. She is also sitting on a time bomb in her body.

Raised by single mother in southwest Detroit, she attended Southwestern High School but dropped out when she became pregnant. When she gave birth to her son, she learned about what was ticking inside of her.

"I first found out about it when I had my son 12 years ago," Passage says. "I had some tests and they suggested I have a colposcopy." A colposcopy is a common follow-up for abnormal pap smears.

"They told me that I had cancerous cells which were basically sleeping at the time, but they could come awake at any time. They told me that I had to be monitored on a regular basis."

Standard protocol would have Passage tested every six months to one year. Passage went to the Indian Health Services clinic in Detroit but was told that they do not do the colposcopies there. She was referred to an outside clinic, but couldn't afford the $150 test. So she put it off.

"I've always kept a job but I never had insurance," she says. "So the next time I had it monitored was when I had my daughter four years later."

The cells were still inactive and Passage, a named plaintiff in the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program lawsuit against the federal government, has not been tested since. She and her husband believe that their limited funds are better spent for the immediate needs of her two children and the niece they are raising for Passage's sister who is homeless and living on the streets of Detroit. Passage works about 10 days a month as a field representative the United States Census Bureau and is looking for a job with health insurance benefits. Her husband worked at a moving company but suffered a heart attack in December and is currently unable to work.

She has returned to the IHS clinic for follow-up treatment. The clinic will not do a pap smear, she says, because the results are a foregone conclusion.

"So they said there's nothing else they can do for me," she says. "I think they're doing the best they can do, but they're limited. They're not specialists. They're basically where you go if you have a cold or an earache or something like that."

So Passage sits and waits, accepting her situation with humility and resignation. He voice has a noticeable tremor to it as she talks of her future.

"Basically it is like living with a time bomb. I don't feel very good about it because I have young children who I'd like to be around with for the next 20 years at least," she says. "And, yeah, I mean I won't know nothing about the cancer until it's so severe that probably nothing can be done.

"I don't even want to think about it basically. Because for all I know there could be cancer growing inside of me and there's nothing I can do about it. It's an awful feeling.

"It's not knowing what may come the next day. Hopefully something will come of this lawsuit. Maybe not in my time. Maybe in a future time. Maybe in time to help my children."

Freelancer Tom Schram is co-chair of the National Writers Union of Southeast Michigan. Send comments to [email protected]
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