Cecilia Salinas and her husband, Jaime Galdames, have no money to pay for her mammograms.
They send some of their earnings to their son in Chile and pay for the treatment of Salinas’s uterine cancer and thyroid problems, leaving nothing for the recommended annual screening.
The couple received help on Friday from the GW Mammovan, a breast exam clinic on wheels, parked at 22nd and I streets to provide free screenings to low-income, uninsured women in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“All I want is for my wife to get better, but all I’ve been doing is spending money,” Galdames said, adding, “at least (the Mammovan screening) is something. We appreciate that. We’re very thankful.”
For the past 12 years the Mammovan has traveled around Maryland, D.C. and Virginia four days a week to give breast exams to women who may not otherwise be able to afford them.
To be eligible for a Mammovan screening, women must be over the age of 40 and referred by a doctor. The mammograms are free for individuals making less than $21,000 annually and cost $241 if the woman is uninsured. About half of Mammovan patients have no insurance.
Beverly Herrera, the van’s sole mammographer, said the failing economy is drawing more low-income uninsured women to the Mammovan.
“We’re definitely seeing the economy have a trickle-down effect on our program,” she said while sitting in the Mammovan, which resembles a trailer on the inside and includes a waiting area, television, changing rooms and doctor’s office with a digital mammogram machine.
A study by the Rockefeller Foundation and Time magazine found that a quarter of the 2,000 respondents did not see a doctor in 2008 because of the cost, and 23 percent did not have health insurance.
But the Mammovan is not affordable for everyone.
Roxana Diaz, intake coordinator for the Mammovan, said she gets up to 10 calls a day from people making too much to qualify for the free screening but unable to afford the regular price for a mammogram.
Between 2,300 and 2,500 women are screened in the vehicle each year, said Karen Marino, Mammovan coordinator. They have diagnosed more than 91 cases of cancer since its founding in 1996.
Like many of the Mammovan’s patients, Yovana Terrazas has not had a mammogram in more than 10 years. She traveled from Falls Church, Va., to campus on Friday at the recommendation of her doctor.
“There’s so much cancer today,” she said. “I am here for prevention.”
On a typical day, the Mammovan stops at clinics, companies and churches, serving Department of Labor employees one day and members of a Korean church the next. But the Mammovan, the only service of its kind in the area, is not as well-funded as it once was. It almost forced to shut down a couple years ago, staff said.
Bernard Sprowl has been at the helm of the Mammovan for the past seven years, taking only three sick days. He said a lot of responsibility comes from driving “almost a million dollars on wheels.”
The job can be emotionally strenuous too, he said. The mammographer will sometimes let him know if she sees a patient who looks like she has cancer.
“Everyone will feel bad,” he said. “It’s a moving type of job.”
Sprowl shares the van with Herrera and Maria Albert, the receptionist, who he said he considers family. Albert checks the women in and makes sure they have a good experience so they will return next year.
Sometimes there are openings in the schedule, and Albert takes walk-in patients. One woman, she remembered, was given a last-minute appointment and turned out to have breast cancer.
She said, “It was really sad because she just walked up to the van, but happy because we caught the cancer ahead of time.”