"We were really pushing hard to cure him of his cancer," Benedetto says. "The chemo took an enormous amount out of him. We whittled him down to nothing with the intensity of the treatments."
When the chemotherapy was over, another battle began. In some cases chemotherapy shrinks down tumors, and in others it transforms them into benign white masses called teratomas. Teratomas should be surgically removed, because they can become cancerous. Unfortunately for Wetzel teratomas now dotted his insides like freckles. Six weeks after chemotherapy, when Wetzel began to regain his strength, he underwent the first of five surgeries to cut out the masses. In a single ten-and-a-half-hour surgery, he lost his left kidney, which had been swallowed by a tumor. Later he was told his other kidney would likely have to be removed, put in a cooler, scraped, washed, and reattached. Luckily he escaped that particular adventure. Scars now crisscross his body, a road map of his illness and recovery.
Wetzel finally secured Medicaid, health insurance for the indigent, but for testicular cancer it covered only hospital stays, not doctors' fees, which represented about 20 percent of the total bill. So Benedetto used his clout to talk various surgeons into performing the operations gratis and the hospital into eating other charges. All in all Wetzel estimates he ran up half a million dollars in fees that he didn't have to pay.
Benedetto likes Wetzel, calls him a nice guy, but insists he would help anyone in the same spot. "I'm no Albert Schweitzer, but the money issue is not the most important issue," says Benedetto. "Especially when you are talking about a curable disease."
Ironically Benedetto says he has a better chance of treating patients like Wetzel who have no insurance than those covered by most HMOs. That's because only a couple HMOs approve treatment at the Sylvester Cancer Center.
As the months passed, Wetzel slowly grew stronger. One day he ventured out to get a collar for his beloved dog, Zeus, his constant companion during his illness. Stepping into a Hialeah pet-grooming store, he bumped into sales clerk Lori Wludyka, his high-school sweetheart, whom he hadn't seen in 12 years. Wludyka just started that day and Wetzel was her first customer. "It was definitely fate," she says.
They chatted a bit, and Wetzel paid for a collar. "Can I have your phone number?" he asked.
"I already wrote it on the back of the receipt," she replied.
He called the next day. The following night, they watched the final episode of Cheers at her place and talked until 1 a.m. They quickly fell in love, moved in together, and married on September 9, 1995.
Before the wedding Wetzel took a step to protect his future wife: He filed for bankruptcy to wipe out the $128,000 in outpatient treatments and chemotherapy Medicaid did not cover. "The bill collectors were calling all the time," says Wetzel. "I didn't want to ruin Lori's credit, too."
By then Wetzel's cancer was in remission, and he was back up to 200 pounds. From the start the new couple wanted a child. Lori had always dreamed of having four sons and -- counting her hubby -- her own basketball team. But Wetzel learned he suffered nerve damage during chemotherapy and as a result, is sterile. He can have sex, but the sperm backs up into his bladder. Lori feared adoption; she had seen horror stories on the news about biological fathers coming forward later.
So the couple started saving for in vitro fertilization (IVF), an expensive procedure in which sperm is mixed with an egg in a petri dish and the resulting embryo is implanted in the woman's uterus. IVF has been around for 20 years, since Louise Brown became the first "test-tube baby." Back then the pregnancy rate from IVF teetered around 10 percent. Now researchers have discovered new methods of IVF and have boosted the pregnancy rate as high as 50 percent.
Health insurance covers IVF in only five states, and Florida is not one. Some desperate couples who don't have the minimum cost of about $13,000 actually move to one of those five states. Others mortgage their houses with the hope of bearing a child.
By 1998 Wetzel was working as assistant parks director for the City of Wilton Manors, and his wife owned the pet-grooming shop where she had bumped into Wetzel. Wetzel saved his money and drove his 1991 Saturn until it practically fell apart. Their families chipped in a couple thousand dollars. The couple used leftover wedding-gift cash. And they started shopping for a fertility doctor.