There’s a real-life Christmas story unfolding in Portland this month, a heartwarming tale of communal goodwill the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
In early November, Ed King, editor and publisher of The West End News, and his partner, Liz McMahon, moved to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) in western Russia, where McMahon had landed a job teaching English. The couple planned to stay for at least a year, but those plans were dashed within weeks, as King’s health rapidly deteriorated.
In an interview this week, King, 62, said the extent of his health problems took him by surprise. He had “sort of a cursory exam” before he left, he said, but the basic tests didn’t turn up anything serious. He was taking ibuprofen and mild sedatives for some general aches and pains, which seemed to be doing the trick.
However, a week or so after their arrival in Russia, King began to experience a new pain, this one in his side.
“I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of muscle tear from dragging luggage all around Moscow for a couple days,” he said, or something more serious, but the over-the-counter meds he’d been taking were no longer working.
After a week-long detour in London to update travel documents, King returned to Russia in early December. The pain had worsened, prompting an ambulance trip to a Russian hospital, where King was admitted and underwent another round of tests for two days. King said he was “very confident” in the Russian doctors — “they seemed to be asking the right questions, poking me in the right places” — but the language barrier was a challenge.
“Everything had to be translated,” he said. “I was not sure I was getting accurate information.”
“Then, on the third day, the doctor came in,” King continued. “I really had a sense he was gonna give me some kind of diagnosis. It just totally hit me out of left field. The first thing he started talking about was a malignant tumor in the intestine.”
On December 4, at 3:11 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, McMahon posted a message on Facebook: “Is anyone in America awake right now? If so, please respond. This is an emergency.”
A blizzard of messages and phone calls followed, as friends and family rallied to help McMahon hastily arrange a flight back to the U.S., where an ambulance picked King up from the Portland Jetport and brought him to Maine Medical Center.
The tests performed at Maine Med led to a diagnosis similar to the one the Russian doctors provided: colon cancer.
“There was no way to sugar-coat it,” said King. “It was straight-out-there bad news, every word you don’t want to hear.”
King now has more effective medication to address the pain, and he and McMahon are staying in an apartment on Munjoy Hill this month provided by friends. Additional medical appointments and tests are scheduled for the coming weeks. Given the extent of the cancer, surgery does not appear to be an option, though other treatments are possible.
Medical expenses are not the couple’s most pressing concern at this point. King has neither insurance nor income, so he should qualify for state assistance, and he’s been told that hospice expenses would be covered should he need to go that route.
Living expenses — soon to include rent — are another matter. King and McMahon, who formerly ran a performance space in Portland called Lucid Stage, both quit their jobs and sold most of their possessions before making the trip overseas. King is in no condition to return to work, and McMahon said she may be able to take on a part-time job but will need to focus on caring for King for the foreseeable future.
Enter the Portland community. A website (gofundme.com/help-ed-and-liz) has been set up to collect contributions, and the response has been huge. As of Wednesday morning, more than $11,000 had been raised, courtesy of more than 180 people. The list includes numerous city officials and neighborhood activists, as well as musicians and artists who aren’t in much better financial shape than King and McMahon.
A “Carnival of Support” fundraiser will take place this Saturday night at Empire Dine and Dance, featuring numerous performers and a raffle, and another benefit show is scheduled for January 19 at Mayo Street Arts in Portland.
King spent more than a decade publishing his quirky community newspaper. It was a labor of love for this city — he sure wasn’t doing it for the money — and it’s immensely gratifying to see the city return that love when King needs it most. Rain and the recession be damned: The true spirit of Christmas is alive and well in Portland, Maine.