First-in-Michigan legal clinic gives help to cancer patients

 

 
Hair falling out, body aches, nausea and an uncertainty about the future are only a few obstacles cancer patients face.
 
There’s also homelessness, insurance, expensive medicine, transportation and final disposition. These challenges are complicated tenfold when those patients are low income with few resources and fewer options.
 
But, there is help now for some of the legal issues those patients face, with a partnership between Wayne State University Law School and the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit and Farmington Hills.
 
One Wayne law graduate has turned her passion into a public service and educational tool — helping those patients while helping to train law students.
Kathryn Smolinski, who was an oncology social worker for 20 years before going to law school, created the Legal Advocacy for People with Cancer Clinic at Wayne Law in 2011 when she was a third-year law student.
 
“I just love helping people advocate for what they need, deserve and have a right to — I like helping people problem-solve,” Smolinski said. “I worked a lot with people at end of life, hospice, and one of the things that really interested me was the intersection of health and law and promoting getting people what they need, and remove some of the obstacles and things that can impede quality of life while going through care.”
 
The legal clinic is the first of its kind dedicated to oncology patients in Michigan and one of the first in the nation.
 
Initially, Smolinski was awarded a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship to develop the medical-legal partnership. Now the clinic will be part of the curriculum starting in January.
 
You can just tell Smolinski is thrilled to have the clinic as a permanent fixture and as part of the curriculum. And not for her, but for those patients and students who both have much to gain in the relationship.
 
“It meets so many needs in so many ways: students get real life experience, interviewing, counseling, applying the law to real situations, and it provides low-income patients with legal help and provides Karmanos another offering for its patients,” she told me.
 
Consider some of the situations the patients face:
 
A single woman with stage 4 ovarian cancer on Social Security disability of $800 a month. She wants to make out a will so her end-of-life concerns are honored. She doesn’t know how she can afford to do this.
 
Another woman with stage 4 colorectal cancer who has been evicted. She has an income of $600 a month, and her husband lost his job. She wants to know how long it will be until she’s actually put out on the street and if she has any recourse.
 
Or the 42-year-old woman with terminal cancer who has been denied Social Security disability. “She’s got little kids, and she’s going to die,” said Karmanos nurse Nancy Iles.
These are the kinds of people Smolinski, the clinic, the mentors, other volunteers and students are helping, she said. She will be the director of the clinic and will serve as an adjunct assistant professor, helping teach and guide students though the process.
 
In addition, they bring the service to the patient, Smolinski said, so between treatments and often multiple appointments, the patients don’t have to worry about catching another appointment at the law school.
 
“People with serious and chronic cancers are overwhelmed as it is, and then to have legal concerns, as well, just stresses them so much that they often think of stopping treatment and just giving up,” Smolinski said. “But this service is so personal. The clinic workers talk to the person over the phone and meet them at the cancer center, which helps a lot, and they also understand the urgency of the needs.”
 

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