Elizabeth Gilmore worked 15 years for an oncology supply company that markets drugs for cancer patients.
In early 2011, corporate downsizing meant she lost her job, and the insurance coverage it provided. A few months later, she learned she had ovarian cancer.
“I worked selling the drugs that I now have to take,” said Gilmore, of Severna Park, Md.
Although she had purchased insurance through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), her costs still exceeded her coverage. But she did qualify for help from a new program.
Last year, Gilmore was among the first three cancer patients to receive financial assistance from a fund established by Eileen Morgan, a 1990 Penn State graduate and a cancer survivor.
“I had been looking for some support, but I didn’t qualify for a lot of programs,” Gilmore said. “Her foundation really meets a need that is out there.
“They helped with my copay program. Even for patients who have insurance, it can be incredibly expensive.”
The Eileen Morgan Foundation will host a weekend of fundraising events Aug. 16-17 in and around her alma mater. A dinner that Friday night at the Nittany Lion Inn will feature Sue Paterno as speaker. A Saturday golf outing at Skytop Mountain Golf Club will include Penn State sports stars such as former Nittany Lion running backs Franco Harris, D.J. Dozier and Blair Thomas.
“This helped me a lot,” Gilmore said. “When you’re in that situation, you have to prioritize where every penny goes. To have someone help you with money, it’s a humbling experience.”
‘A financial burden’
Morgan left Penn State with a degree in aerospace engineering and went to work as a patent examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
In 2009, she was diagnosed with endometroid adenocarcinoma, a form of uterine cancer. Morgan had surgery and went through chemotherapy and radiation treatment beginning in 2010.
“I spent $6,000 or $7,000 out of pocket. I was fortunate to be able to cover those costs,” she said. “I was also fortunate to be able to continue to work, which allowed me to maintain some normalcy in my life. It was a blessing for me emotionally and financially.”
She met others facing similar health concerns who faced financial hardship.
“I would go in for treatments on Monday every week, and I would see the same six or eight people,” Morgan said. “I wondered, how do people cover their medical expenses, especially if they have to stop working? It kept coming back to me: How do people make it? ... It can be very challenging emotionally. I think having a financial burden on top of that would have been very difficult.”
She said a plan began to form in her mind. Morgan decided to establish a fund to help cancer patients with their expenses.
“I thought I had a good idea,” she said, “but to take the next step and bring it to fruition, that takes courage.”
‘Still make a difference’
Morgan has become something of a celebrity as a supporter of the late Joe Paterno and an opponent of NCAA sanctions against Penn State.
She spoke at last fall’s Rally for Resignations aimed at the Penn State board of trustees and administration, and at Harris’ “After Further Review” session in the spring that challenged the findings of the Louis Freeh report — issued a year ago Friday — and Paterno’s 2011 firing.
“I think some people get the wrong impression, that we’re defending this icon,” Morgan said. “We just want the truth. And that would serve the victims as well as the people responsible.”
Paterno died of complications from lung cancer in January 2012. As his health deteriorated, Morgan said, she read as much as she could about the coach.
She applied for incorporation to establish her foundation the day after Paterno died. The Eileen Morgan Foundation is a 501(c)(3) incorporated in Virginia, where she lives and works.
“That moment was an epiphany for me,” she said. “I was in my early 40s then. I was reading about him and realized he had accomplished all that he did after that. I thought, I can still make a difference.”
She said having Sue Paterno speak at the foundation banquet is “such an honor.”
“I was just in awe when she said yes,” Morgan said. “I was reaching for the stars and I got it. She’s such a wonderful person, and we all know cancer has touched her life.”
‘Something really good’
Penn State ties surround Morgan and dominate the leadership of her foundation.
Morgan is president and chairwoman. Dozier, a Virginia native, is a board member. Other board members include Elizabeth Das, Morgan’s former Penn State roommate; Mary Beth Stimeling, Morgan’s sister; and Jane Tadlock, who has been Morgan’s best friend since they met as freshmen at University Park.
“It’s very coincidental, but all of us went to Penn State,” Morgan said.
Her daughter, Lexi, is a 2012 Penn State graduate with a degree in public relations and broadcast journalism. This year, Lexi earned a master’s degree at Columbia University. “I call her my angel,” Morgan said. “She keeps me strong.”
Morgan hopes her Penn State relationships help her grow her fund to the point that an endowment can be established to support cancer patients well into the future. The endowment effort will be officially kicked off at the Aug. 16 dinner.
“I’m very excited to be coming back to State College,” Morgan said. “Last year, we had our first event in northern Virginia. To come back to Penn State, where I still know a lot of people and where I still have a lot of friends, is special. Of course, it’s an area where I have a good base. I feel like it could be very successful.”
‘A place out there’
In its first year, Morgan’s foundation provided support to three cancer patients: Gilmore in Maryland and individuals in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Cancer patients interested in applying for help can visit www.eileenmorganfoundation.org. There are income restrictions and funding is meant to assist where insurance falls short.
“It starts small,” Morgan said. “But I see it starting to grow and getting bigger each year so that we can help more and more people.”
Gilmore was 48 when she learned through an ultrasound procedure during a gynecologist appointment that she had ovarian cancer. A CT scan confirmed the diagnosis.
She had three tumors the size of grapefruits removed from her abdomen in 2011, then chemotherapy for six months in the second half of that year.
She had participated in fundraisers for various causes, and soon learned firsthand the value of those contributions.
“It’s good to know there’s a place out there for people to go,” Gilmore said. “Sometimes you get so down thinking there’s nothing out there. But there are people like Eileen and new foundations every day that help people. You just have to keep looking, keep trying.”
Gilmore celebrated her 51st birthday on Wednesday. She will be two years cancer-free this fall.
But first, she plans to play in Morgan’s golf outing in August — to give back to the foundation that helped her.
“Some people get all worked up about getting older,” Gilmore said. “I’m like, ‘Woo-hoo! I woke up and it’s my birthday.’ Cancer really does change your perspective on things.”
“I would not change anything about what I’ve been through,” she said. “I am a better person. And I am more aware of what I want to do. I realized that this life is about helping other people.”
Follow Chip Minemyer on Twitter @MinemyerChip.