Carpenter’s career cut short by cancer, but help arrives

Carlos Urrutia Felix, a union carpenter for more than 30 years in Contra Costa County, had a perilous job, navigating highrise scaffolding to install metal siding and drywall.

But the thing that brought him to the ground was something he never saw coming: kidney cancer.

A year ago, the father with a son in college studying screenwriting and another at home with high-functioning autism, underwent surgery that removed the cancer. Felix, 56, was able to use his union medical savings fund to pay all but $7,000 of his hospital bills. He expected to go back to work after a few months of recovery, but he was overly optimistic.

He developed heart problems and high blood pressure related to his operation. His wife’s $500 monthly income from her part-time job at Victoria’s Secret was not enough to feed the family, so he applied for unemployment benefits.

When his health worsened this year, he was removed from the unemployment rolls and given disability payments of $2,200 a month. That left just $250 a month for all the utility bills, gas and food. Then in the middle of this year, the disability checks ran out.

“It broke my heart to hear my younger son ask every day, ‘Are we still OK? Are we going to run out of food?’” Felix said. “I’d tell him, ‘Son, I will sell my shoes if I have to, but we will never run out of food. You let Mommy and Daddy worry about that.”

Then Felix remembered participating in charity drives that his carpenters’ union ran for the homeless. The monies raised went to an organization called Shelter, Inc. He swallowed his pride, and called them.

“It was embarrassing that I was now one of those people in hardship,” Felix said. “But when you have a family, and a child with autism, hey, all that pride has to go away.”

A man named Jose Villa at Shelter, Inc. answered the phone — and Felix’s prayers. He set Felix up with a $100 Safeway gift card, and paid one month’s rent. Villa contacted the San Francisco Chronicle’s Season of Sharing fund, which came up with a second month’s rent.

It was just enough to get Felix’s family through until his application for Social Security Income was approved on Dec. 1. He now qualifies for Social Security benefits, and can draw on his carpenter’s pension early due to his disability.

Felix has a lot to celebrate this Christmas, including the one-year anniversary of living cancer-free.

“I am so grateful,” he said. “This really makes me believe that there are good people out there who will come to your side if things get desperate.”


Meredith May is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. She can be reached by e-mail at or on Twitter@MeredithMaySF.

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