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Compassion Springs From the Plight of Cancer Victim

Linda Fisher has bought all her Christmas presents, distributed her belongings among her friends and relatives, and is waiting to die.

Fisher is the 41-year-old amputee and terminally ill cancer victim who sparked a small controversy because she was living in a recreational vehicle parked in front of her cousin’s home in San Juan Capistrano.

After interviewing Fisher in August, I knocked on her neighbors’ doors to find out exactly who had filed the complaint with the city. At one home, an elderly woman opened the door a crack.

She said that she and her husband were concerned that Fisher was turning the neighborhood into an RV park and that it could lower the value of their $400,000 home. She and her husband had complained to the city’s planning division that Fisher was violating the city’s land-use ordinance that prohibits people from living in recreational vehicles in a residential area.

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I had wondered why anyone would file such a complaint. They probably didn’t know that Fisher had been through seven major operations and had lost about 140 pounds during an 18-month period. Maybe they didn’t know why she lives in the RV. Maybe they didn’t know that Fisher is almost always attached to an IV pump and that her intestinal contents are discharged in a plastic bag. In the RV, she can still get to the refrigerator or go to the bathroom unassisted.

The RV is not only her home--it is her world.

The city had given Fisher notice that she had to find another home.

After an article about Fisher’s situation was published, the city granted her a three-month reprieve.

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I have periodically telephoned Fisher to inquire how she is and to find out whether she had received any word from the city. When I called last week, she had good news and bad.

The city had granted her another six-month extension to live in her RV. And her relatives from across the country had also pooled $10,000 to move the RV out of the neighbors’ sight. A contractor is making the renovations to accommodate the RV on the side of the house.

But Fisher’s doctors have told her that her kidneys and liver have been irreparably damaged and that she was living “minute to minute.”

After hearing the news, Fisher began taking care of business. The Christmas presents she purchased included deer statues for her cousin Jean Maxey--a retired nurse who has been caring for her the last three years--and a home spa unit for her 83-year-old grandmother, Mae, who suffers from a bad back. She also gave some of her belongings to a nurses’ aide whose home was recently destroyed in a fire.

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Fisher said the RV incident had mentally drained her but quickly added that she preferred to look on the brighter side.

She referred to Caren Chatham-Heller, a San Juan Capistrano woman who offered her assistance after reading the newspaper article.

“I was moved . . . and I was angry,” Chatham-Heller said. “I know how uncommitted and uninvolved people are today, and I knew that the likelihood no one else would offer to help her was high.”

Chatham-Heller has since been in constant contact with Fisher. She has been helpful in finding an additional nurse’s aide to care for Fisher at night.

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Although San Juan Capistrano’s ordinance remains unchanged, in October, the Placentia City Council amended its law that prohibited people from living in recreation vehicles. Under the new law, the council may waive the requirements “because the city recognizes that at times a person cannot comply with this regulation due to extenuating circumstances.”

Councilman Norman Z. Eckenrode, who proposed the amendment, said Fisher’s story changed his mind about Placentia’s land-use law.

“We were moved by this woman’s plight,” Eckenrode said last week. “So we decided to tell our staff not to be hard-nosed about this. There are times when you have to have humanity or compassion and look the other way.”

I felt sad about Fisher’s condition. But when I finally worked up the courage to ask her how she felt being so close to death, her answer made my sadness less painful.

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“If it wasn’t my turn, I wouldn’t be dying,” she said. “He must have a reason for me still being here. It took a lot of hard fighting, and I have never given in. So if (my story) will help people in Placentia, then it was a good reason to be around.”


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