Over the past seven years, Don Ananías Ocampo has become famous in Pilsen, pushing his paletero cart along 18th Street.
But last week the 77-year-old went to the hospital for knee surgery, and his days selling ice cream – his only source of income – are likely over.
“He is worried and he is sad,” said Hilda Burgos, Pilsen resident, client and friend.
“He keeps asking me, ‘When can I sell my ice cream again?’ And I really don’t think he’ll be able to do it again, because both knees are so damaged from all those years of pushing the heavy cart. I also think he will probably have to have surgery on the other knee once he recovers.
Now, they’ve launched a GoFundMe effort for Ocampo to make sure he can pay his rent and to help with what they fear crippling hospital bills.
“The doctors tried everything to avoid knee surgery, like gunshots, but nothing worked,” Burgos said. “He worked so hard when he was younger in factories and restaurants, but had to quit because of his arthritis. Working as a paletero when he got older only made it worse.
Ocampo moved to Pilsen from Guerrero, Mexico almost 35 years ago, Burgos said. During this time, he had no medical insurance, due to his immigration status.
Then, in January, Illinois became the first state to extend health coverage to undocumented seniors with incomes below the federal poverty line. Ocampo qualified and since then has seen many doctors finally attending to his health care needs.
He was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, and recently had nose surgery for skin cancer. He went to health clinics to get help for his arthritis in his knees, which led to his recent surgery, which was seen as the only option to improve his quality of life.
The operation was a success, but some other needs, such as rehabilitation or even a possible move to an assisted living facility, are not covered.
Ocampo remains in the University of Illinois Chicago Hospital, 1740 W. Taylor St., as doctors worry about his life situation. He is expected to be released within the next week.
“We are concerned that when he comes out of the hospital he will have to go back to the small apartment – in reality it is only a room near an alley – and how will he be able to do his exercises to recover correctly? Said Ben Emmrich, a Pilsen resident who helped organize GoFundMe. “His bathroom is not accessible to him, really, because of his mobility problems. It’s just a dangerous situation, and quite frankly, it’s not a dignified situation.
The proceeds from GoFundMe will help pay his rent of $ 500 per month in the small room he’s been living in for almost a year now. If enough money is given, Emmrich said, maybe they could help pay for a better apartment. They also want to pay a home health care worker to monitor him twice a week.
Emmrich has set a goal of $ 12,000, hoping that will be enough to help Ocampo for at least a year. Thursday afternoon, they were halfway there.
“He doesn’t need a lot and he doesn’t ask for anything,” Emmrich said. “He just needs a lasting, secure and dignified living situation. A ride to a senior center on occasion, health care and a commitment.
Despite the uncertainty, Ocampo – many in the neighborhood call him “Don A” – remains the same as when Emmrich met him two years ago.
“His spirit is unbridled optimism and that is a very good lesson for all of us,” said Emmrich. “We need to free ourselves from our own burden and take the Don A approach to life in general. He’s just a happy guy.