First COVID-19, now cancer, threaten to tank couple’s pet-sitting business

The following is part of an essay series from Memphis workers affected by COVID-19. The series is produced by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in partnership with High Ground News. Click here to read the rest of the series and MLK50's larger coronavirus coverage.
 
"We’re living so close to the bone right now. It's pretty overwhelming."
- Eileen Castine
 

AN ESSAY OF UNCERTAINTY AMID COVID-19
BY EILEEN CASTINE

Writing this down in black-and-white has been hard and gut-wrenching. My life partner, Ricci Mundy, and I own Mr. Scruff’s, a small pet-sitting business in the Cooper-Young area. I started the business after I moved to Memphis from Detroit in 2003 to be with Ricci, and she joined me full-time about six years ago.

We go to people’s houses, and we care for their dogs, cats, ferrets and fish while they are on vacation or business trips. We also bring in mail and do the little things that need tending to when folks are gone.

We meet with potential clients, usually referred to us by word-of-mouth, before signing contracts and getting to know pets and people. We also have Monday-Friday clients, or a variation of those days, where we walk dogs or let them out for playtime and potty breaks.

Since the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak, we have been losing business right and left. We first started getting cancellations from clients in mid-March who had to cancel trips out of the country for business or vacation: We lost more than $1,200 just from that in two weeks. We are a small company, and this is a significant loss for us.

We lost most of our daily dog-walking clients, except for those who work as nurses. I lost one big client who worked long hours and went on lots of business trips; that was probably $300-$500 a month. We lost people who had scheduled cruises and trips to Florida that cost us probably $3,000 in March and April.

At this writing, I have two clients, and Ricci has two or three. We usually have 15–20 between the two of us, and we need to have at least 10 a day to sustain our home, our business insurance, our bills and everything else.

A few people have kept us on here and there just to help us out. The kind of money we are losing long-term is hard to say because we have had no new requests for our services.

We are taking extra precautions with the clients we have left. I’m wearing a mask and gloves, even though we don’t usually see the people at the houses we go to. We’re washing our hands, wiping down leashes with disinfectant, and wiping down door knobs and car door handles with disinfectant.

Our business is down 75% from what we were doing a month ago and even further compared with last year at this time. This business has ebbs and flows, but we have always had people requesting dates, adding services or calls from new clients every day; we are pretty well-known in our community. In the past, we have hired an extra person to help out occasionally, but it’s just me and Ricci at the moment.

We have not had one single request for new dates or to meet with a new client in 14 days. This kind of lull has never happened before, except for when I was first establishing the business.

While all of this is going on, I found out March 14 that I have endometrial cancer. I also have myotonic muscular dystrophy, a complex, degenerative neuromuscular disease that complicates any surgery or hospital stay.

I will have to have a hysterectomy for sure, but I don’t know when. I am not sure how long things will be postponed because of COVID-19. Recovery from a hysterectomy takes several weeks, and with myotonic dystrophy it can complicate the surgery and prolong recovery, a period with serious complications, including death.

I also just had a sleep study and was told I stopped breathing 72 times during the night and my oxygen levels dropped down to 81% for a significant portion of the night.

These respiratory issues are a very common symptom of myotonic dystrophy. I was lucky there was a better policy offered through the Affordable Care Act marketplace this year. It has been a nightmare navigating through the medical industry with crappy or no health insurance as I’ve had to do the past two or three years, since BlueCross pulled out of the marketplace. They came back this year, and that’s who I have now. I would most likely not have had any of this care or found out I had cancer without this insurance.

The loss of work hits us at a time when we need to be as busy as possible to save money to cover us while I’m in recovery. My partner and I do not have any other source of income. We have poured all of our time and effort into making this business something that can sustain us financially. We have no savings. We’ve had to change auto insurance to something cheaper, look at cheaper homeowners’ insurance and other things. Friends and clients have mailed us checks.

We have two cars, one that we have a few more payments on and the other that will be paid off in five years. For the last few weeks, we’ve had to use our Walmart credit card to get food for ourselves and our animals. We have another credit card with a $20,000 limit we’ve had to use to pay for a major plumbing issue that cost us about $5,000. We still have some leaky pipes, but we’re reluctant to get the rest of repairs finished because we don’t know how much we’ll need from the rest of that credit card.

I have so many medical bills. I don’t even know what will happen when I get the bills from the surgery. It’s adding up. We’re living so close to the bone right now. It’s pretty overwhelming.
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