From the Ozarks to Houston, the 800-mile journey to find life-saving medical treatment
“I was supposed to be dead 5 or 6 years ago,” said Bill Holder, a retired engineer that lives in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains. “I live in the middle of where cell phones don’t work and it’s 40 miles to a grocery store. There are no hospitals in the area.”
On an otherwise unremarkable night in 2011, Holder, 72, looked into his bathroom mirror and discovered a golf ball-sized tumor growing across his neck. The next morning he went to the doctor, who referred him to several other doctors before he received a diagnosis of high-risk leukemia — with less than nine months to live.
“They did a bone marrow test and 85% of my bone marrow was cancerous,” Holder explained. “I had so much cancer in my bones that I wasn’t producing any red blood cells. I was told that I didn’t have long to live.”
Searching for treatment
Two years later, a group of doctors at the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas started a clinical trial to test out a new cancer drug. If effective, it could treat the exact type of cancer that now impaired Holder’s ability to move freely. But to participate, he would need to travel 800 miles and find lodging while receiving treatment, as well as cover the costs of return trips to Houston for requisite follow-up appointments.
The opportunity to add years to his life dangled in front of him, but the cost was too high to bear.
Tackling economic hurdles
“I’ve spent most of my life in public service and now my wife and I live on social security,” said Holder, who has served as a mayor, city councilman, and school board member in his community. “Paying for housing in Houston was going to be an economic wall to climb, but I refused to give up.”
And he persisted — by channeling his energy into researching alternative options to find a clear path forward. “I happened to read an article about Airbnb making a $1.2 million grant for cancer patients,” he said. Earlier this year, Airbnb provided grant support to Cancer Support Community and Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation. Through Cancer Support Community, he said, “I quickly got the doctors release, filled out the forms, applied, and was given a housing stipend. It was really a lifesaver.”
Recovering in a home away from home
With financial help from Cancer Support Community, he put his dog in the passenger seat and packed his car to drive nearly 12 hours to Houston, where he checked into a high-rise apartment building two blocks from the hospital.
There, he found room to breathe.
“The Airbnb was a nice place overlooking the zoo, the golf course, and a park,” Holder said. “It was far superior to staying far from the hospital.” In between appointments, he could spend time relaxing rather than driving back-and-forth to a motel room. “The best part was that on the 7th floor of the building, there was a hydromassage table. It had warm water and you could set it to travel up and down your body.”
“There’s nothing more powerful than having a safe and comfortable place to stay when you’re going through a hard time,” said Kevin, who hosted Holder in Houston. “I host to empower people through housing.”
Regaining a sense of normalcy
One year after receiving treatment, Holder returned to Houston for check-up appointments with his team of doctors. In October 2019, he was overjoyed to learn that his bone marrow test came back cancer-free. Energized by this news, he returned home to Missouri, where he enjoys spending time at the lake with his wife and daughter who often visits from Colorado.
“When you’re my age, you could help a whole lot of other people by doing a cancer trial,” he said. “Even if the trial doesn’t work, everybody is a winner. Because at least the doctors and researchers will know what won’t work.”
“I’m so grateful for Open Homes — the program facilitated my ability to do the trial,” he said. “I owe a lot to medicine and to research. For cancer trials in the future, it will solve a lot of problems for a lot of people.”