Tough Luck: Cancer Victim Wins $1 Million, but Can't Get the Money

On Jan. 12, Wayne A. Schenk thought he was the luckiest man alive.

A month earlier, he'd been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. But on this afternoon, the 51-year-old Marine veteran was hanging out with his buddy Domonick Gallo, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather in their hometown of Naples, N.Y., by indulging a favorite ritual: scratching off lottery tickets.

And one of Schenk's $5 High Stakes Blackjack tickets hit it big, winning the $1 million prize. It was more than enough money to pay for the $400,000 in cancer treatments that he desires.

But Schenk's dream-come-true soon turned into a nightmare. When he contacted the New York State Lottery about paying him the money in a lump sum, he learned that the rules of that particular game mandate a payout over 20 years, providing him only $50,000 a year. And he's been given only 12 to 18 months to live.

"Three times we talked to the lottery and they've said that they can't do it," says Schenk, who recently got a brush cut because his hair has started to fall out. "That was more depressing than anything."

Schenk does not have health insurance but as an ex-Marine he's been getting some treatment from the Veteran Affairs hospital in Syracuse, N.Y. "The VA is good but only as good as they can be -- they're not up to date on everything and they're a little slow."

Schenk wants to get treated at a cancer center, such as the Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia. But that facility requires $125,000 up front and $250,000 in reserves for him to get cancer care. He's thought about selling the Orange Inn, a tavern he bought last year, but that would probably take too long and it might not sell for enough money.

Gallo, his buddy, has been working the phones on his behalf, reaching out to hospitals and financial institutions. "When he won the million dollars — as soon as we calmed down and stopped high-fiving each other — he said, 'Now I can get myself into a cancer hospital and save my life," says Gallo. "Why wouldn't the lottery help him out? They just told him no."

Schenk's plight has attracted some attention -- State Assemblyman Joseph A. Errigo, R, has been in contact with the state lottery about assigning the winnings directly to a hospital, such as Buffalo's Roswell Cancer Institute. And he is putting together a bill to carve out a one-time exemption from the lottery's rules.

But Errigo acknowledges that legislative action can take years. He says he would help organize a fundraiser for Schenk if all else fails. "What are the odds of winning the lottery and finding out that you only have a year to live?"

Indeed, any change to the lottery's rules would probably take too long -- time that Schenk doesn't have. Several years ago, when the state legislature passed a bill to allow a lottery winner who'd lost his ticket to reap his winnings, it took three years from start to jackpot finish.

Lottery officials claim that they are doing what they can to help Schenk. "This is the first time that we've ever had something like this," says deputy director Susan Miller. "We wish we could [give him a lump sum] but we're constrained by the rules and the rules of the game stipulate that's the prize."

Miller says that the best option is for Schenk to get a court order telling the lottery to pay out his winnings to a financial institution or a medical facility. "We're hopeful that we can help Mr. Schenk resolve this to his satisfaction."

But Gallo says that he and Schenk approached several banks which turned them down and that hospitals are equally resistant. "They have to pay their electricity, their doctors — they have to pay those bills today — they can't wait 20 years for their money."

They've also been in discussions with several buyout firms, which would pay $467,000 to buy Schenk's ticket. But after taxes, that amount would be reduced by almost half.

"Why won't someone help out?" asks Gallo. "Wouldn't this be a great story -- with great publicity -- veteran who has cancer wins money to save his life?"

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