The growth was the size of a small brain, and Zac Kennedy was taking care of it the best way he knew how.
Inside his home — a backyard lean-to covered with a tarp and a faded patio umbrella — he was careful to clean it with water and cover it with toilet paper. But it seemed to get larger the more he scratched it.
Kennedy is one of about 60 individuals served weekly by Matthew's Hope, a 7-year-old homeless ministry in West Orange County. For nearly a year, he endured severe pain, and no one even knew the extent of his suffering because he always wore a jacket to hide the growth.
When it became unbearable, Kennedy sought medical help at a local hospital but says he was turned away for inability to pay for treatment.
Nancy Pfaff, a registered nurse in charge of health care and guest advocacy with Matthew's Hope, met Kennedy in April 2016 when he showed up at the mobile medical unit from Orange Blossom Community Health Center. Pfaff sprayed it with a sterile cleansing solution and began peeling away the layers of toilet paper.
But she knew he needed professional help beyond the services Matthew’s Hope could provide, and she contacted a colleague at Florida Hospital Winter Garden. A partnership was developed, and Zac received the treatment he needed.
A year later, the tumor is gone. He is in remission.
“IN AFRICA, THEY WOULD JUST THROW ME AWAY”
Zac, a native of Liberia, says he has been homeless since he lost his immigration documents in 2001. He survives by cashing in aluminum cans and scraps of copper.
The tumor showed up about a year ago as a small black spot but kept growing and becoming more and more unsightly and painful. He found it hard to sleep on his pallets at night.
“I always wore a jacket to cover it,” he said. “Now I can wear T-shirts. I didn't take it seriously. … I didn't know what it was. And with no medical doctor, I just let it go. … I couldn't just walk into the hospital and say, ‘Cut this thing off.’”
Pfaff was with Zac for every step of his yearlong medical journey. She was there during his initial assessment at Florida Hospital Winter Garden and subsequent visits to Florida Hospital Orlando. She supported him during scans and labs and surgery and chemotherapy.
Wendi Coheley, senior manager for care management at the Winter Garden campus, was instrumental in Zac’s treatment, working with him periodically during his year of treatment.
“Their attitude was accepting and loving and, ‘What can we do? This man is not going back to his camp like this,’” Pfaff said. “And they never let us down.”
Chemotherapy made Zac dehydrated, so he was admitted to the hospital for closer monitoring. On June 30, the tumor was removed from Zac’s arm at Florida Hospital Orlando, and he started negative-pressure wound therapy. A month later, he moved to an assisted-living facility until this treatment phase was completed to reduce the chances of infection.
The wound vac was removed Sept. 6.
“Part of our mission at Florida Hospital is to extend the healing ministry of Christ, and what better way to do that than by reaching out to someone in need.” Coheley said. “Not only the clinical care, but probably what made the biggest impact on Zac was we loved him and treated him like a human being.”
A skin graft covers the area of Zac’s upper arm that once supported the tumor. He is able to use his arm, and while he can’t do any heavy lifting, he can fix his bicycle and play his guitar. He wrote African short stories for children to occupy his time while in the hospital, and now he wants to get them published.
“I'm not materialistic; I'm a rich man,” Zac said. “In Africa, they would just throw me away. In a rich country, here I am.”
“WHAT TOOK PLACE THAT MADE THIS OK?”
Matthew’s Hope was founded seven years ago and is named for the Bible passage Matthew 25: 35-40, which concludes: “The Lord will reply…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Scott Billue founded Matthew’s Hope in March 2010.
“What we were able to do with Zac is more of where we hope to go in the future,” said Billue, who also is CEO and president. “We've been able to build relationships with doctors, nurses, dentists, people in the medical field, even counselors. We've been able to facilitate for people to get the care they would otherwise not be able to get. And, it's certainly something no government agency has been able to accomplish. Zac would be dead.”
Billue said nearly 80% of the individuals served in the last seven years either grew up or had a home in West Orange County before they were homeless, and many still have family in the community, but something took place to change that.
“Matthew’s Hope is the only organization that I've been exposed to that is taking a holistic approach in caring for people as individuals and not just as a ‘homeless person,’” he said. “We want to find the cause so that we can treat the symptoms. We identify issues of individuals and get to the core of what made them who they are, in other words … we look at each person and say what happened, what took place in their life that made living like that, whatever that is, ok? Whether that means living in a tent, or going from food bank to food bank – what took place that made that ok?”
Ask Billue, and he will tell you that the programs developed at Matthew’s Hope do work and can change lives.
“As I look at the successes and failures over the years, people always want us to give a matrix of what we consider success,” Billue said. “And all I can say is that every person who walked through those doors left better than when they came in.”