IOWA CITY – We’ve known for months that bar and restaurant workers are hit especially hard during the coronavirus crisis.
But some such workers are getting hit even harder than others. And one of those is Lis Wolf.
A long-time bartender in the Iowa City area, Wolf was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in June, after a fast-growing tumor caused her leg to swell up to the point of interfering with her blood circulation. Now undergoing aggressive chemotherapy while still trying to squeeze in a few hours of work each week in spite of the exposure it creates to COVID-19, Wolf is the focus of an all-day fundraiser Sat., Oct. 10, at The Club Car.
Her co-workers at Shakespeare’s Pub & Grill, the Club Car‘s “sister” bar, are coordinating the Lis Wolf Outdoor Benefit Concert along with owner Suzi Spalj. The day will include two of Shakespeare’s most popular bands; a silent auction; a bags (cornhole) tournament; a 50/50 darts tournament that takes aim at a giant blow-up photo of Wolf’s tumor; T-shirt sales; a taco truck that will donate 10 percent of proceeds to Wolf; and Club Car’s regular menu plus Shakespeare’s popular brisket, with all profits going to Wolf.
“Lis Wolf is one of the strongest women I have met,” Spalj says. “If anyone can beat cancer, it’s Lis. She takes care of her sister, she works three jobs …. I don’t know how she does it all. We’re raising money so we can take care of her now until she gets better.”
Wolf, who is used to being on her feet about 16 hours a day working two to four bartending jobs, says she first noticed something was wrong during one of the slowdowns triggered by restaurants being closed to in-house dining. Her leg swelled up so large that she couldn’t bend it, or even wear pants. She finally went to the emergency room in June.
An ultrasound showed “super-active cells” throughout her abdomen, hip area, and between her legs. A biopsy soon confirmed the growth was cancerous. And a CT-scan showed the cancer had spread from her right leg and abdomen, to her armpits. The tumor was pressing on her nerves and blood vessels.
Wolf was immediately put on steroids to stop the tumor’s growth. She’s now several cycles into four different aggressive chemotherapies, which she receives through a port for eight hours, every three weeks. She describes the cycle as not only physically exhausting, but mentally and emotionally taxing.
“The first week after the infusion is bad. You’re nauseous, your body feels like it is lead, and heavy. It’s hard to move,” Wolf says. “You don’t want to eat, you don’t want to do anything for a few days. Your head hurts, you get hot flashes, and then you’re cold, and then you’re hot. It’s like a really bad hangover.”
“The middle week, you feel normal. And that third week, you start to worry about having to go back.”
Her dilemma is worsened by COVID-19: as a chemotherapy patient, her immune system is severely compromised, leaving her at severely high risk of complications should she contract the virus. “With my immunity dropped like this, it’s scary,” Wolf says. “My doctor doesn’t like me working. He’s told me that If I get COVID, I might not be able to fight the cancer and the virus at once.”
Yet, Wolf still attempts to work, trying to put in early-morning hours at Shakespeare’s doing things that minimize her contact with other people. She aims to put in enough hours to at least cover her health insurance, which Shakespeare’s and Club Car are covering during her cancer fight
“She wants to work, and I have to tell her, ‘Stay home! We want you to get better! It ‘s too dangerous for you to work with the public right now,'” says Spalj.
Kelsey Lee Akers, one of Lis’s closest friends and co-workers, has been doing all she can to support Wolf — including shaving her head in solidarity with Wolf, whose long red hair began to drop out in clumps shortly after she began chemotherapy.
“There’s not a lot you can share with someone who is fighting something like this,” Akers said “But this was something I could do to help her not feel alone.
“She kept telling me to leave it. I kept saying, ‘there’s no going back!’ I’m glad I did it. I actually don’t hate it. And we have a lot of silly wigs.”
Akers is spearheading the fundraising effort on Oct. 10. She encourages businesses who want to donate silent auction items to swing by Shakespeare’s with their donations by 5 p.m. Wed., Oct. 7. People interested in registering for the bags and darts tournaments can reach out to Shakespeare’s through Facebook Messenger, at Shakespeare’s Facebook page, until additional information is available on registering.
Wolf’s challenging situation is unique, but also helps shed light on the historic difficulties restaurant and bar workers have when it comes to health care.
Having to work to keep her insurance, even though work exposes her to serious health risks, is one part of her challenge. Wolf also learned that disability benefits don’t kick in until she’s out of work for six months, which leaves her and other workers without help when they may need it the most, during the early part of their health fights.
Bartenders and other hospitality workers are also among the most affected economically by the coronavirus crisis, with many having hours cut or losing their jobs altogether as public gathering spaces have closed down, partially opened, closed again, and reopened in endless cycles driven by the virus’s spread. In Washington state, for example, virtually all of the state’s bartenders filed for unemployment.
Back in March, restaurant and bar workers accounted for 60 percent of jobs affected by the early coronavirus crisis, with at least seven million job losses anticipated in the industry this year. Numerous charities have popped up nationwide to help bartenders in particular whose jobs have been reduced or cancelled altogether because of the coronavirus crisis.
Wolf says that as someone who is used to helping others (she cares full-time for her mentally ill sister), she feels a little uncomfortable being in a situation of relying on others. She’s also humbled that Shakespeare’s is going the extra mile to help with her medical expenses right now, given that the pub and grill is, itself, coping with the effects of coronavirus and its impact on customer flow.
“I just want everyone to know how amazing the community at Shakespeare’s is,” Wolf said. “It’s an amazing local business that will support the community, and the community needs to support it right now.
In addition to the event Oct. 10, you can also donate directly to Wolf’s GoFundMe page.