Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Dr Alfred Dawes | Kinte's struggle - One man's fight with his insurance company to treat his deadly cancer

Published:Wednesday | October 24, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Adult T-cell Lymphoma/Leukaemia (ATLL) is a deadly cancer with no known cure. It is associated with a virus, HTLV-l, that is so common in Jamaica that we routinely screen pregnant women and donated blood for its presence.

One of my favourite TV series as a child was Roots. It chronicled the life of an African who was sold into slavery in America. Kunta Kinte struggled against his masters and ran away from the plantation several times, despite severe punishment. He was even whipped into submitting to his slave name and new identity - Toby.

I have always remembered his defiance and willingness to sacrifice everything in fighting to keep his identity and not be dehumanised by a cruel system.

Now years later I have met a real-life Kunta Kinte.

Whether it was sheer luck or ordained by destiny, Kinte Mendez was named after my childhood hero. Born in Dias, Hanover, to civil servant parents, Kinte attended Munro College then Mico Teachers' College. He worked at a school in the community before pursuing further studies in Cuba.

Upon his return, he worked in several jobs before settling at Knox College. Married for three years, he planned to start a family. Unfortunately, a series of illnesses affected his wife and exhausted the couples' finances.

In 2011, Kinte took out NCB Procare and ProVision critical illness, and life and disability policies on the advice of his mother, so as to prepare for any eventuality. To NCB, his new identity was Policy Holder 707-512000032 (PH 707).

In 2014, PH 707 noticed dark spots around his eyes and thickening of his ears. After visiting a doctor and receiving treatment, the illness cleared up for six months. But thereafter, the condition only got worse. Subsequent visits to other doctors failed to arrest the worsening of the condition.

Two years later, PH 707 suddenly developed poor vision. After visiting several other doctors, he was finally diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in May 2018, a lethal form of cancer that just recently led to the death of billionaire Microsoft founder Paul Allen.

He was urgently admitted to the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) for treatment. Repeated tests confirmed his worst fears - he had a rare and very aggressive cancer that was endemic to Jamaica and four other countries in the world, Adult T-cell Lymphoma/Leukaemia (ATLL).


... A deadly cancer with no known cure


Adult T-cell Lymphoma/Leukaemia (ATLL) is a deadly cancer with no known cure. It is associated with a virus, HTLV-l, that is so common in Jamaica that we routinely screen pregnant women and donated blood for its presence.

Much of the knowledge about this virus and the diseases it causes were gained from the work of a team from the University of the West Indies led by our own world-renowned pathologist, Dr Barrie Hanchard.

Dr Hanchard and his team, with funding from the National Institutes of Health in the United States, showed that the cancer could show up first in the skin, but like all lymphomas/leukaemias, spread throughout the body, ultimately leading to death. Nobody has ever been cured of ATLL.

Confronted with mounting medical expenses, PH 707 claimed for the cancer benefits payable under his policy. The claim was denied.

Although the policy covered lymphomas, the medical director of the company advised the claims manager that this was a skin cancer and therefore should not be covered by the policy.

Kinte Mendez's protestations, backed up by expert opinions from cancer specialists locally and overseas, fell on deaf ears. NCB would continue to treat this lymphoma as a skin cancer and he would have to take it up with their legal department if he didn't like it.




This denial of benefits by a health insurance company is more common than imagined.

In his documentary Sicko, Michael Moore showed how the for-profit health insurance companies find every reason not to pay sick clients the funds needed for treatment. One former medical director spoke of the bonuses she received whenever she denied claims and saved the company money.

The math is simple. Collect premiums from as many clients as possible. Whenever said clients get sick, deny as many claims as possible to limit payouts and boost profits. Pay out mega profits to shareholders and market to new clients to sign up to replace the current clients dying from diseases covered by the plan. Repeat the above steps.


... #iamkinte - sacrificed on the altar of gold


Left on his own, Kinte Mendez, NCB policyholder 707-512000032 (PH 707), has not given up. He purchases his chemotherapy medication in government pharmacies and transports them on ice to UHWI to cut down on costs.

Despite being barely able to see well enough to read a text message, he travels from Spaldings, Clarendon, to Kingston on buses, rushing to get home before the side effects of chemotherapy kick in.

He spends most of his days hidden away at home because of the growths on his skin, avoiding public stares and ridicule.

As he continues to pay his insurance premiums that contribute to the record billions of dollars of profits to the NCB Group, PH 707 has not given up hope that someone will overrule the decisions taken by a few employees of a mega corporation to sacrifice his life for a Christmas bonus.

He knows how aggressive the disease is but remains hopeful. Hopeful that his next round of chemotherapy will give him a fighting chance. But time is running out.




PH 707 reached out to me to see how I could help. But I can't. Not alone.

I can only let you know that his name is not PH 707. His name is Kinte Mendez - a living, breathing human being who has hopes and dreams like the rest of us.

A man who prepared for the worst and now that the worst has come, is being sacrificed on the altar of gold. #iamkinte.

This could have been me. If this practice is not stopped right now, we all are potential victims of this horrible extremist form of capitalism.

I am prepared to throw my weight behind Kinte in this fight. Because I know he cannot lose. For the only man who can defeat an enemy with unlimited resources is the man who fights with nothing to lose.

- Dr Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic and weight-loss surgeon; fellow of the American College of Surgeons; senior medical officer of the Savanna-La-Mar Public General Hospital; and former president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors' Association. Email: