Lerine Liu came to the United States to start a new life after she met
her boyfriend, Andre Phipps, online.
NEWARK, NJ - Looking for a fresh start, Lerine Liu moved from Singapore
to the United States on Valentine’s Day this year to be with a boyfriend
she met online.
Not long after the 42-year old woman settled in with Andre Phipps in Bloomfield,
she started to feel a pain in her back. At first, she thought she had
pulled a back muscle and went to an urgent care facility in Newark.
A week later and still in pain, she started having trouble breathing and
went to the Emergency Department at Saint Michael’s Medical Center
in Newark. It was mid-April and the COVID-19 virus was making its advance
in Northern New Jersey.
“We debated going to the Emergency Room because of COVID-19,”
said Phipps. “I wish we had gone sooner instead of to the urgent
care facility, but I’m glad we decided to go when we did.”
Liu was tested for the virus, but the test came back negative. But a CT
scan and MRI revealed that Liu was suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer
that was spreading quickly.
The diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worst time. Right about that
time, nearly every bed in Saint Michael’s was filled with coronavirus
patients, many on respirators. Likewise, other hospitals in Newark and
the surrounding communities were facing the same reality.
“This was truly unchartered territory for many cancer centers,"
said Dr. Hamid Shaaban, an oncologist and a chief medical officer at Saint
Michael’s. "We were reacting to multiple challenges demanded
by coronavirus but waiting until the pandemic passed was not an option
for Liu. She needed radiation therapy and chemotherapy immediately and
we were not going to delay her care."
Liu was in the process of looking for a job in fashion purchasing/merchandising,
but had not yet found work so she was uninsured. Nevertheless, the hospital
started her treatments and worked with her to ensure she was covered by
“She had an aggressive stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that had
metastasized to her lungs and spine,” Dr. Shaaban said. “Any
delays in her treatment would dramatically decrease her chances of survival.”
Liu’s family in Singapore wanted her to return to home, but she couldn’t
just hop on the next commercial flight from Newark Liberty International
Airport. Because of her condition, she would need a specialized air ambulance
at a cost of $235,000.
Her family in Singapore posted an
appeal on give.asia, a popular crowdfunding platform in Asia similar to GoFundMe. After an
article about the appeal
appeared in the media in Singapore, the family raised enough within four days to cover the cost of the air
“She will be on treatment for the rest of her life but I am glad
we were able to overcome any hindrances, including a global pandemic,
to initiate it here and grant her wish of continuing it in Singapore with
the support system of her family,” Dr. Shaaban said.
Though disappointed that their plans as a couple didn’t work out,
Phipps said he is happy that Liu is able to rejoin her family in Singapore,
where she will continue to receive cancer treatments at a hospital there.
“Her family really wanted her back,” Phipps said. “They
didn’t want her to leave Singapore but supported Lerine’s
dreams of finding love and continuing to pursue her career in fashion.
Now they're extremely grateful to have her back.”
Phipps said he is extremely satisfied with the treatment Liu received at
“This happened right in the peak of the pandemic, yet the doctors
and nurses at Saint Michael’s were still able to provide Lerine
with excellent care,” Phipps said. “She is starting to show
signs of improvement but she has a long road ahead of her.”
Shaaban said Liu's story highlights the importance not putting off
medical treatment because of fears about coming to a hospital during a
pandemic. Saint Michael's has been open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic
and resumed elective surgery on May 26.
"Cancer is not going anywhere despite COVID19," Dr. Shaaban said.
"People need to continue cancer screening and surveillance because
delay in treatment can impact survival."