Something more at stake

“I have no problem talking about it,” she said. “I want my customers and I want the world to know that a 40-year old man can get diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. So if anything I want to raise awareness about that as well.”

Michelle Dewey poses for a picture inside of her East Passyunk vintage clothing store.

After spending almost half an hour finding a parking spot, Michelle Dewey finally strolls into Mesh Vintage, the clothing store she owns located on East Passyunk Avenue, at about 1:15 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. She’s ready to talk.

“I have no problem talking about it,” she said. “I want my customers and I want the world to know that a 40-year old man can get diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. So if anything, I want to raise awareness about that as well.”

Mesh Vintage opened about 3.5 years ago. Dewey had a cushy corporate job working for BMW. She used the money she made there to buy lots of vintage clothes. Too many vintage clothes. Too many vintage clothes for somebody who didn’t own a vintage clothing shop, at least. So she opened one.

“I knew I wanted to be in Philadelphia,” said Dewey, who lives in Wilmington, Delaware. “I narrowed it down to three neighborhoods, and then I ultimately settled in East Passyunk. Surprisingly because the parking here — even though it’s terrible — was better than my other options.”

Dewey has been collecting vintage clothes since she was 13 years old. She’s 40 now. Her obsession was likely triggered by working at Goodwill in high school, which was her first job.

“I was a glorified hoarder, basically,” she said, referring to her storage units and closets full of vintage clothes. “I had to quit my job and open a store and unload most of this stuff because it was crazy how much inventory I had. I decided to hang up my selling cars job and open a vintage clothing store.”

Things went well for the first year and a half, until April 2017. That’s when her husband, Casey Grabowski, was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. They’ve been together since they were both 19.

Unfortunately, Grabowski was recently taken off chemotherapy. It wasn’t working. The only option left is to get into a trial for pancreatic cancer patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

“Getting into a trial is incredibly difficult,” Dewey said, noting that many of the trials only allow in five to 10 people in the world. So if they call and say ‘we need blood work today,’ you literally need to drive to Johns Hopkins to get that blood work. If they want to biopsy him, we have to go immediately.”

For Grabowski, there’s a screening process of multiple tests that has to be completed before they’ll even accept him into the trial. That’s the stage he’s at now.

“My phone never leaves my side,” Dewey said. “If they call today and say we have to go back down, I have to close immediately and go. And that’s just to see if they let us into the trial at this point, because a trial is our only option left to treat this disease. There are no other options left for us.”

As a result, Dewey is constantly going back and forth between her home in Wilmington, the hospital in Baltimore and her business in Philadelphia. Which means her store’s hours are inconsistent, to say the least.

“Sometimes I hear people walk by and they go ‘she’s never open,’ and I just want to chase them down the street and say ‘I want to be open! I’m trying to save my husband’s life though,’” she said. “I think, if they really knew the whole story, obviously anybody would be sympathetic, and once they hear the story they get it and they’re completely understanding.”

This has actually been the case for the most part. Lucky for Dewey, her store’s core demographic skews young enough to be active on social media. Dewey posts her store’s hours for the week every Wednesday (the one constant is that her store is always closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so her week essentially runs from Wednesday through Sunday).

The medical costs Grabowski has encountered have been staggering. The largest bill Dewey has gotten was $26,000. Every day, Dewey said, she sees four-figure medical bills. Even though Grabowski and Dewey have great insurance (which they pay $1,500 for on top of the medical costs), Dewey, who handles the financials, said “the insurance company just looks at you like you’re a number.” She’s spent large portions of her time fighting the insurance company over covering this or covering that.

One of the main ways the couple gets by is through a GoFundMe page ( Dewey started two months after Grabowski was diagnosed. As of this writing, the GoFundMe page has raised $70,460. Some 787 people have donated so far. But it’s still not enough.

“The cost is never-ending,” Dewey said. “And that’s just the bills from the hospital.”

According to Dewey, Grabowski was a civil engineer by trade. For obvious reasons, he’s no longer working, and the only income he has is from Social Security disability, which is less than a quarter of what he used to make as a civil engineer.

“So everything changes,” she said. “We have a house, we have a mortgage, we have a business.”

Even before Grabowski’s diagnosis, Dewey and Grabowski have always been unimpressed with the United States’ health-care system. Going through Grabowski’s situation confirmed her suspicions.

“I know how terrible health care in this country is. Every step of the way I’m fighting somebody every day on the phone. Even getting into this trial — if we get in it — his insurance has denied him twice.”

Dewey appealed the insurance company’s denials and won both times. But still, “the insurance companies do really scandalous things,” she said.

But the good news is the insurance company (eventually) approved Grabowski’s ability to participate in the trail. Now it’s just a matter of seeing if he gets in.

Dewey is still hoping for the best. Hopefully, Grabowski will make it into treatment and everything will work out.

“Yeah, it has to,” she said. “It has to work out.”