03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Relief Comes To Family's Medical Debt Only After Mother's Death

"We didn't have enough money to cremate her," Bob Wessenberg of Coppell, Texas, recalls, after being faced with his wife's catastrophic illness and the dysfunction of the healthcare system.

The Wessenbergs were a happy family of four when Sheila Wessenberg was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer on Mother's Day in 2001. At the time, Bob Wessenberg was working as a contractor, making over $100,000 with health insurance. After reporting that his wife was undergoing chemotherapy, his contract was not renewed and the family no longer had health insurance.

Although the family made extensive attempts to salvage their finances by selling stocks, bonds, savings accounts and cashing in Bob's retirement, Sheila had to go without chemotherapy. They exhausted all their resources after 6 months and were unable to afford COBRA. She didn't qualify for coverage from the local county hospital or Medicare. Uninsured women with breast cancer are twice as likely to die from the disease as women with coverage.

Test results from the doctor came back. The cancer had metastasized, with four lesions on her lungs, but Sheila had to stop seeking treatment. Sheila even resorted to panhandling with a coffee can, earning $150 for her efforts, which was scarcely enough to cover groceries.

Despite receiving a lumpectomy and a mastectomy and free medical care from a local doctor, Sheila's cancer ultimately took her life. She became eligible for Medicare the day after she died. Her husband finally found work with a temporary agency in September of 2005, and procured health insurance for the family through a new job.

Ironically, many of Sheila's medical bills, totaling more than $200,000, were written off only because she passed away.