She still has to bury her beloved husband, Rocky, who died in her arms just 11 days ago at their home in Limerick.

And she still has a mountain of unpaid medical bills, thanks to a health policy that did a lot better job covering the insurance company’s profit margin than it did Rocky’s cancer.

So why in the world was Theresa D’Andrea smiling Thursday afternoon?

“I’m tickled,” she said. “I’m so glad that there’s been a public acknowledgement that what I went through is crap.”

Mind you, it wasn’t just any public acknowledgement. This one, before a throng that packed the Portland Expo, came directly from the president of the United States.

“Theresa’s husband passed away recently from cancer. Before he died, he had a lifetime cap on his insurance,” President Obama told the multitudes during his health reform rally. “As a result, Theresa not only had to cope with the loss of her husband, but with $60,000 in medical bills. This, after she’d already spent all of her retirement savings on medical care.”

Turning to Theresa, Obama continued, “Now, because of this reform, a situation like Theresa’s won’t happen again in the United States of America.”

For 20 long seconds, the crowd looked up at Theresa and applauded. And at long last, Theresa felt like, maybe, just maybe, something good might come out of her and Rocky’s 18-month nightmare.

It started in September of 2008.

Rocky, who worked as a night security guard for Securitas, came home feverish and disoriented one night from his station at Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook.

By the next day, he and Theresa were at Goodall Hospital in Sanford. Over the next three days, doctors first ruled out a stroke, then ruled out a heart attack and finally diagnosed him with cancer.

“Melanoma,” Theresa said. “It’s easy to treat when it’s in its first stage, but once it metastasizes, it’s pretty much deadly.”

Rocky, then 61, was already at Stage 4. The next thing he knew, he was being admitted to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston for what would be four week-long rounds of injection therapy with the drug Proleukin.

The treatment was by no means easy — the drug’s litany of side effects included everything from severe infections and fatigue to irregular heartbeat and loss of mental function.

Nor was it cheap — all told, Rocky received 80 injections at close to $9,000 per shot.

Which brings us to the D’Andreas’ health insurance.

Like most people, Rocky and Theresa focused mostly on deductibles, co-payments and other out-of-pocket expenses when they decided to go with his Aetna policy rather than the one provided through her job with the Maine Parent Federation.

And like most people, they didn’t think much about the fact that the policy carried a lifetime benefits cap of just $250,000.

That changed in May, Theresa said, “when the bills came and they started saying insurance won’t pay.”

Immediately, Theresa decided this would be her problem, not Rocky’s.

“I just looked him straight in the face and said, ‘I will handle this. I will figure out a way. You have one job and that is to get well,’” she recalled.

But Rocky didn’t get well. He got steadily worse.

After the injection therapy came a trial with a drug that Theresa remembers only as the “didn’t-work-good-on-Rocky-drug.” Then came standard chemotherapy, along with the near-constant hospital admissions whenever Rocky spiked another fever or needed a transfusion to stabilize his ever-undulating blood counts.

Faced with medical bills that at one point totaled $1.6 million, Theresa found her life a merry-go-round of fending off collection agencies, pleading with doctors and drug companies for free medication samples and searching for someone who might pick up where the anemic insurance policy left off. (She finally found some relief in the state’s MaineCare program.)

At the same time, the credit cards went unpaid and the bank began making noises about foreclosing on their home. Theresa, swallowing her stress, told Rocky not to worry, everything would be all right.

In February, after talking with Theresa about her plight, the health reform advocacy group Consumers for Affordable Health Care asked if she and Rocky might consider a trip to Augusta to speak in favor of a bill to outlaw both annual and lifetime insurance caps in Maine.

Without hesitation, they made the trip. And after Theresa laid their life bare at the news conference and the audience responded with a standing ovation, Rocky broke down in tears.

“I’d never seen him cry like that before,” Theresa said.

He had good reason. By early March, Rocky’s doctor told him it was time to stop the chemo. And finally, on March 22, he died peacefully at home, just as he’d requested, in Theresa’s arms.

Maine’s ban on health insurance caps, parts of which take effect sooner than the new federal prohibition, received final passage by the Legislature a week ago. Gov. John Baldacci is expected to sign it today.

“Rocky’s story made a big difference,” said House Majority Whip Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. Like so many people who haven’t a clue about lifetime caps, “he was cut off (from his insurance) when he needed it the most.”

(During the hearing on the insurance bill, Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland, asked how many people in the room knew what their health insurance cap was. “No one did,” Burgess recalled Thursday. “Not one.”)

Wednesday morning, Theresa got a call from Consumers for Affordable Health Care, which offered her two tickets to Obama’s speech. She invited Beverly Baker, her boss at the Maine Parent Federation, to come along.

Only minutes before Obama took the stage, Theresa learned that the president planned to include her in his remarks. For a brief moment, she broke down.

“Rocky’s looking down on this,” she finally said, pulling herself together. “And he’s loving every minute of it.”

It didn’t go as smoothly as one might hope. Obama mispronounced Theresa’s last name — and was loudly corrected by a contingent from Consumers for Affordable Health Care who had forwarded her story to the White House.

But as the president told the crowd what had happened to Theresa and promised that with these reforms it will never happen again, Theresa stood and gave two thumbs-up — not just for Obama, but for Rocky.

She still has hurdles: Rocky’s funeral at St. Matthew Church in Limerick is planned for April 12. And while hospital write-offs and other “miracles” have reduced her debt to $60,000, Theresa hasn’t a clue how she’ll pay that off, get current on her other bills and still hang on to the house.

But somewhere in all the hoopla Thursday, Theresa D’Andrea found no small measure of healing. Even as he prepared to die, the man she lovingly called “Bear” had the courage to share his story.

And lo and behold, the world listened.

“It feels good,” Theresa said quietly, still smiling through her grief and exhaustion. “It’s the nicest I’ve felt in weeks.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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