Wayne Schenk was diagnosed in December with inoperable lung cancer. Doctors at a Veterans Administration hospital told the former Marine he might live for another year or, if he's lucky, maybe 18 months.
Five weeks later, Schenk bought a $5 scratch-off High Stakes Blackjack ticket at a drugstore near his home in small-town Naples and hit the jackpot. There had to be a catch, he immediately thought, and there was: The $1 million New York Lottery prize pays out in $50,000 annual installments over 20 years.
"If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all," Schenk, 51, said with a wheezy laugh as he sat in a friend's pickup outside an attorney's office where he recently went to draw up his will.
Schenk, a lifelong smoker whose parents both died of lung cancer in the 1990s, bought the Orange Inn tavern on Main Street a year ago after decades of working odd jobs in construction, the highway department and at a nearby ski resort in the hilly Finger Lakes region.
He has no need for a new house, or a fancy car. What he's hoping to buy is a little time — by checking into a Pennsylvania hospital that specializes in treating advanced-stage cancers.
"I understand money can't buy everything, but money can prolong things, you know?" he said.
It's proving much trickier than he imagined.
To begin with, his insurance with the Department of Veteran Affairs cannot be transferred to an out-of-network provider.
The Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia, run by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, told him it would need $125,000 up front and $250,000 in reserves to be tapped as his treatment proceeds.
"We are definitely looking into how we can help him," said Chris Hamrick, a spokesman for the nationwide chain.
Schenk recently cashed his first lottery check — $34,000 after taxes — and is still scrambling to find a lump-sum arrangement. He's been offered a lump sum of more than $400,000, but after taxes he'd only be left with a little more than $200,000.
Lottery 'sympathetic' but 'not able'
"We're incredibly sympathetic," said Susan Miller, deputy director of the New York Lottery. "But we're not able, because of our rules and regulations, to just write him a (lump-sum) check. We're absolutely willing to expedite the paperwork if he can talk to a bank or a company that does this."
Schenk also has turned for help to his state assemblyman, Joseph Errigo, who is considering pushing a bill to allow the lottery to award a lump sum in extraordinary cases. But legislation in Albany often take a year or longer to take effect — possibly too long for Schenk to benefit.
For now, he drives every few weeks to the VA Medical Center in Syracuse for chemotherapy sessions — and is even looking into enlisting in an experimental cancer-drug trial at a hospital in Alberta, Canada.
"The VA is a very good hospital but the VA works on a hundred different things," he said. "There's newer treatments out there. It takes the government a little time to come around to some of the other ways."
Schenk served on a troop ship off Lebanon during a stint in the Marines from 1976 to 1980. He is unmarried and has no children.
"You couldn't ask for a better, kinder-hearted guy than Wayne," said a close friend, Dom Gallo, 43, who owns an arts-and-crafts market in Naples. "He'll give that money away and won't try to save his own life."
Schenk said he's trying to take each day in stride — even though the road appears to be petering out.
"I haven't given up, but it's getting right down there where time is of the essence," he said.
"I figure by the time they get around to take care of me, it will be too late," he said, then added, "There's only one way to go and that's up. I've already been down."