When Semesa Leweni woke up in his room at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, he was more than a little disoriented.
“I see the ceiling. I think: Where I’m staying now? I ask the nurse, she told me, ‘You staying in Corvallis now, you know?’
“No, I don’t know.”
The shock was understandable. Leweni, a native of Fiji, was 6,000 miles from home and had no recollection of arriving at the Corvallis hospital or how he came to be there.
It’s a complicated story.
Leweni spends most of his time tending his farm in Fiji, where he grows cassava, taro and other crops. But from August through November each year he crosses the Pacific to join the commercial fishing fleet chasing schools of tuna in the waters off Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
“Money in Fiji not good,” he explains in halting but willing English. “So we come to make some money in fishing boat.”
This year Leweni signed on as a crewman with the Bold Contender. On Oct. 13, the Canadian-flagged trawler was fishing in deep water about 100 miles off the Oregon coast when Leweni was found unconscious on the deck. That night he began having seizures.
A Coast Guard helicopter answered the boat’s distress call and flew the unconscious Leweni to Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital in Newport, where a mass was detected in his brain. From there, another helicopter brought him to Corvallis for treatment.
“When he came in, he was in continuous seizures,” recalled Dr. Clifford Roberson, a neurosurgeon at Good Samaritan. “He was actually comatose and on a respirator.”
Roberson removed a tumor the size of an orange from Leweni’s brain. Some time later, he woke up in the hospital and began to reconstruct his life.
It hasn’t been easy. Leweni arrived with no money and no health insurance. He knew no one in Corvallis and spoke little English.
But he seems to have found a home here.
Since his discharge, he’s been living at Good Sam’s Mario Pastega House, where his sweet and humble manner, winning smile and sly sense of humor have endeared him to the staff.
His follow-up care, under the supervision of radiation oncologist Kenneth Nitta and medical oncologist David Hufnagel, includes radiation treatments five days a week at the Samaritan Regional Cancer Center.
The staff of the cancer center has taken Leweni under their wing, with nurses, therapists and office workers bringing him meals and clothing, taking him out to eat and finding reasons to get him out of the Pastega House, where he sometimes gets bored and lonely.
He’s also been adopted by a Methodist church in Seattle with a large Fijian congregation, which has tried to bridge the culture gap for Leweni. The pastor and several church members came down for a visit. They played guitar, sang songs in Fijian and prayed together.
A Wilsonville woman with ties to the church, Ivamere Moravek, drives down regularly on her days off work and plans to take Leweni to Seattle to be with her family on Thanksgiving.
Leweni’s hospital bills to date have topped $200,000, according to Samaritan officials. Some of that may be covered by Medicaid. Whatever’s left likely will be written off as charity care by Good Sam.
Leweni is due to finish his radiation treatments next month and is scheduled to fly home on Jan. 3. His former employers have bought him a plane ticket.
But his medical team is worried about the prospect of Leweni making the 14-hour flight alone. His caregivers are asking the community for donations of cash or airline miles for a second ticket so a relative could accompany him.
Donations can be sent to the Mario Pastega House, 3605 N.W. Samaritan Drive, Corvallis, OR 97339. For more information, call Pastega House manager Gloria Lekkerkerker at 541-768-4650.
“These are unusual circumstances, but this is an unusual man,” said Jan Spencer, a social worker with the Samaritan Regional Cancer Center. “He does not ask for anything, but he’s so grateful for anything anybody gives him.”
Leweni says he’s anxious to get back to his family.
“A long time I never go home,” he said. “I take care of my life. I need to be good here and go home.”
But he also says he’s become attached to the friends he’s made in Corvallis.
“I have a good family here now.”
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