Duluth woman finds hope in local allies

By Sarah Rosten “Exhausted as I was, I really leaned on my allies a lot,” said Wanda Ard.

Ard’s ally, Gail Bloom, looks on, smiling and nodding.

“The story will never be done, really,” Bloom said, “but it's been a journey.”

On a sunny spring Saturday, Ard shares her story of poverty.

“I had your suburban neighborhood, family,” Ard said.

Ard is the mother of two grown children, a son who graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth and a daughter currently studying at North Dakota State University, and she  has been struggling to support herself for 11 years.

Her youngest child, Jake, suffers from hereditary chronic pancreatitis. When Jake suffers what Ard refers to as an “attack,” she is unable to work, and his attacks can last a week or longer. She has struggled to keep a job because of her frequent absences.

“It could really happen to any of us,” Bloom said.

Chronic pancreatitis is an uncommon illness in infants and children. It is most commonly found in people who have abused alcohol for many years, but can also be caused by genetics.

Jake’s condition is so rare in young children that he wasn’t diagnosed until 2007, when he was nine.

“He’s an 11 year old, but when a bout comes on, we live like bats,” Ard said.

Jake’s pain is so excruciating during an attack that even lights irritate him, and he can’t eat. Ard said Jake suffers from an attack about every three months.

When doctors could not figure out what Jake suffered from they became convinced it was behavioral problems and dismissed his symptoms, Ard said; doctors even accused her of being the problem, hypothesizing that she was an overbearing hypochondriac.

After Gail Bloom became involved in Wanda Ard’s life, as a Circles of Support ally and a friend, Jake’s condition became harder for hospitals to ignore.

Bloom began going with Ard and Jake to the hospital. She found Ard being treated “not the way I’d expect to be treated,” Bloom said.

“Just helping Wanda find her voice and advocate for herself was the first months,” Bloom said. “I feel like we were soldiers in a battle.”

The two women laugh, remembering their struggles with the medical system.

A memory of sitting outside the hospital, late at night in the rain, and laughing, then too, because “What else could we do?” Ard said.

They reminisce about unplanned trips to Minneapolis when Jake needed certain treatments, which meant Bloom often packing up her kids along with Ard and Jake before rushing down I-35.

And the times when Ard’s car broke down, leaving them stuck trying to jump-start it.

Acknowledging it is a lot of work and responsibility to volunteer as an ally, Bloom said “but its what you do for family. It’s beyond friendship.”

Bloom helped Ard deal with the medical system, including her medical bills.

“There was paperwork everywhere, garbage. Medical, financial, all that stuff takes maintenance, the system will bury people in paper,” Bloom said.

Ard and Bloom finished an 18-month program through Community Action Duluth’s Circles of Support program and are still working together, relying on each other, and supporting others in need.

“Women are strong,” Ard said. “When you have women who really advocate for you, you can advocate for yourself.”

Ard is now employed at Nettleton Elementary School, working in the cafeteria every day.

“Keeping a job with an employer who understands has been wonderful,” Ard said.

The money that she makes at her job doesn’t cover everything, but now that Jake has been diagnosed they receive more support for his disability.

“I have my job, I have my money,” Ard said. “I have a little breathing room instead of living crisis to crisis.”

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