When Mary Cullen’s father was battling lung cancer in 2005, she and her siblings did their best to help their mother and take care of the insurance paperwork and medical expenses. Up until William Gearing finally lost the battle, she did her best to put on a brave face and hide the worry, exhaustion and fear.
But her raw nerves and the emotional pain of seeing a loved one suffer did not go unrecognized by Cullen’s 13-year-old daughter, Katherine, who remembered what her family went through and now wants to help other families dealing with a medical crisis.
“It put a significant amount of stress on them that didn’t need to be there, because they were worrying about his cancer spreading,” the daughter recalls.
Today, Katherine Cullen is a 19-year-old Chapman University sophomore who has started the nonprofit organization With Will’s Help as a means of aiding families struggling through a child’s illness without the benefit of medical insurance. The name she chose for the group is a nod to her maternal grandfather, William Gearing, with whom she was especially close.
“My grandpa was really a loving and amazing person. He loved his grandchildren more than anything, and his family,” she says of the group’s namesake. “He was so giving, and I just think (With Will’s Help) is the perfect name.”
Starting a nonprofit for the sole purpose of paying costly medical bills on behalf of uninsured families is no small task, yet Cullen, who graduated from La Cañada High School in 2010, remains undaunted. She has filed for a 501(c)(3) status, created the website www.withwillshelp.org, is actively seeking potential donors and managed to get a meeting with a dean about reaching out to the school’s alumni association.
“It would be really nice to help someone else,” she says. “For now, I want to just get donations and help kids and their families pay their bills.”
As for Mary Cullen, she stills tears up at the thought of her father, who she remembers as a constant source of love and companionship for her and her siblings. Gearing walked two of her female cousins down the aisle at their weddings, ran marathons with each of his children, and made regular, month-long visits to La Cañada, where he formed a special bond with his granddaughters.
Gearing’s yearlong illness was difficult for his wife and children, despite his having had insurance. Mary Cullen recalls how difficult it was to balance the business and paperwork with the emotional strain the situation was putting on her family.
“Even after Dad was gone, the bills were still coming,” she says. “If we did not have insurance, it would have been devastating. It would have taken Mom and Dad’s life savings. All they’d put away to live would have been gone. It’s just scary.”
Medical debt continues to burden families nationwide, even among those who have insurance, says Jessica Rothhaar, a medical debt program manager for the Oakland office of the nonprofit advocacy group Health Access. Rothhaar works to help raise awareness among consumers of California’s Hospital Fair Pricing Act of 2006, which places limits on how much hospitals can charge uninsured and underinsured patients.
According to a 2007 report by Harvard Law School, she says, 62% of all bankruptcy filings were medical-bill related. For children, however, there is sometimes hope.
“Most adults who need financial help for medical care do not get it, either because they are not eligible or because they can’t overcome the institutional barriers to aid they’re legally entitled to, “ Rothhaar says, “but most children do, because we as a society are more willing to spend public dollars to save children’s lives”
That’s why Katherine Cullen is determined in her mission. Because if she did succeed, families would be free to focus on what really matters — the children.
“They’re really the most important things to our future,” she says.