POSITIVE THINKING

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series that will profile people and places affected by home foreclosures and a faltering economy.

Elana Kestrel sits at a table outside a Summerlin Starbucks working on a laptop with a printed sign attached: "What bothers you about your computer? Free expert advice, Mac or PC! Just ask me!"

A woman entering the coffee shop on Village Center Circle stops at Elana’s table to pick up one of her business cards, which advertise her ability both as a computer tutor and as a computer repair technician.

"I wish I could talk right now," the pantsuited woman tells Elana as she opens the door to the store. "But I’m in a hurry. I’ll call you."

Just the promise of possible work in the roiling, contracting Las Vegas job market brings a brief smile to Elana’s face.

"Like Chris says, ‘Marketing yourself works,’" she sighs, squinting in the morning sunlight as she refers to her significant other, Chris Baugh. "I just hope it doesn’t take too much longer to get a job."

A 46-year-old self-described computer geek, Elana changes the conversation from her job search to her battle with breast cancer.

"Let’s talk about something positive," she said.

As strange as it seems, talking about the disease that could kill her affords her relief from dealing with unemployment.

She becomes decidedly more upbeat as she discusses what she believes has been a successful treatment for the disease, laughing as she describes how she forced surgeons to delay cutting on her.

"I had the surgeons rolling when they saw what I pasted to my breast before the operation," she said. "I took that ‘Intel Inside’ logo and photo-shopped it to read, ‘Tumor Inside.’"

Dr. Bruce Webber, one of the surgeons who removed the lump from Elana’s breast in Oregon in July 2007, remembers the episode well.

"She is quite a woman," Webber said in a phone call from his Portland office. "She didn’t have an easy time of it here. I hope everything goes well for her in Las Vegas."

As for the months of chemotherapy she recently ended at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, Elana says she couldn’t be happier with the experience. No, she didn’t like having her hair fall out or the nausea or the diarrhea or skin rashes or always feeling like she was running up a mountain. But the doctors and staff were caring, she said, and Paula Sennes, a social worker with the centers, helped her work through her fear.

"It helps to talk about things when you’re going through treatment for cancer," Elana said. "For a few months, the cancer drugs were making it hard for me to think, but that’s over now. I’m convinced I’m going to be fine. I’m ready to work."

Only when Elana is asked again about her financial situation does she turn grim.

"I don’t even like to talk about the economy," she said. "It depresses me. You’re supposed to keep a positive attitude after cancer, so I try to stay away from the economy. But it’s hard. Most of the time now — since Chris got sick, too — we don’t even know if we can make the rent."

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Elana believed she had her future all figured out.

After her surgery, she would relocate to Las Vegas and take Chris up on his offer to help her through chemo. In addition to his emotional support, he made good money doing programming projects for a medical software company.

His income, combined with her $900 a month in temporary disability pay, they reasoned, would give her a sense of financial security when she most needed it.

And when the treatment was finished, she just knew she wouldn’t have any trouble finding a good job.

Her rosy assessment of employment opportunities in Las Vegas wasn’t unique.

"Let’s face it: Las Vegas has been seen as the land of milk and honey when it came to jobs," said Keith Schwer, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "People throughout the country did their homework and saw what was happening here. And they came here."

Elana had done her homework. For years, Las Vegas had been the fastest growing major U.S. city, the boomtown of boomtowns. Each month, 7,000 people moved to Clark County, expanding the population to 2 million. There was more construction than in any other city in the country, and the unemployment rate was more than a third below the national average.

"All those people and new businesses moving in meant they’d need computer support," Elana said. "And I knew I had the qualifications."

For seven years she had worked with Stream International, a computer tech support call center based in Portland.

"I’m such a geek I can even fix someone’s computer over the phone," she said. "I know my stuff."

But the bright future that Elana saw so clearly early in 2007 gets dimmer with each passing day.

A couple of months after her September 2007 move to Las Vegas, Chris, 39, became ill with a malady that has yet to be diagnosed.

"On some days I ache so much I can hardly move," he said as stood in the house he rents with Elana on the city’s northwest side.

For a few months he worked part-time, but his health worsened and he had to stop. An independent contractor, he didn’t have health insurance. And as a self-employed contractor, he couldn’t get unemployment insurance.

"I’m hoping I can get some money together for the medical treatment I need," he said.

A burglary of their rental home became a blessing in disguise. After thieves made off with $8,000 worth of Chris’ music and electronics equipment, an insurance company gave them a check in early 2008 to cover the loss.

"That gave us rent, food and gas for three months," Elana said.

Tax refunds also helped. So did a grant to Elana for a month of living expenses from the Nevada Cancer Institute.

A family that saw what the pair was going through invited them over for Thanksgiving dinner.

(The family doesn’t want any publicity for reaching out and doing "what most people would do.")

Now Elana believes "those kind of miracles" are running out. Even the small jobs she’s gotten from sitting outside Starbucks and through Internet ads are slowing down. She notes that retirees, who often have hired her to show them how to use a computer, no longer call.

"People on fixed incomes are having a hard time," she said.

Tony Arias, a Las Vegas based singer and comedian who had Elana work on his computer, says it’s too bad she can’t find full-time work.

"She’s so good teaching someone else how to do what needs to be done," he said. "Her mind seems to work about 10 times as quick as most people’s. She got the viruses off my computer in no time."

As Elana felt healthier this fall and ready to take on a full-time job, the Nevada economy continued to disintegrate, with the jobless rate reaching 7.3 percent, the highest it’s been in 23 years. The boomtown’s boomtown isn’t immune from a national economic downturn, Schwer notes.

Analysts with the state Division of Employment Security now predict the unemployment rate will grow to 8.5 percent next year.

Chris said the problems Elana and he have now don’t allow them to look ahead to next year.

"We have about $20 more than the house rent right now, and the water is due to be shut off," he said as he stood in a room that thieves partially cleaned out six months ago. "I want to sell more of my musical instruments to pay for gas, food and utilities."

Elana is determined that she’s going to make it in Las Vegas, despite the negative economic forecast. She applies for every computer job opening she can find in the Las Vegas Valley.

When she’s back on her feet financially, she wants to help other cancer patients, but that seems a long way off right now.

"It’s a huge frustration to have my cancer journey end in a positive way and have no damned idea how we are going to cover expenses for December utilities and food," she said. "I get a little disability for a few more months, and I suppose I could work the system to get more. I could look for handouts, apply for food stamps, but I’d rather prove to myself and others that I am back, baby.

"Hey, I’m a female version of MacGyver. I’m a born problem-solver, innovator and trouble shooter. Some company in Las Vegas needs me."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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