Stranded far from home
An anonymous gift and a medical ambulance charity allowed one trucker in a coma to fly home.

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer


The recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus has claimed many truckers as victims. One of those victims grabbed national media attention and put a face on a trucking family’s struggle to bring a loved one needing medical care home.

Mary Berardi spent two months living partially out of her car to watch over her bed-ridden son, a truck driver who fell critically ill on the road. She’ll likely spend a lifetime praising those who helped him come home.

For truckers and their families, the fear of a catastrophic health episode landing them in a hospital thousands of miles away from home is very real. In situations where long-term hospitalization or long-term care is required, the cost of bringing a loved one home can be so astronomical that families are often left in a helpless situation.

Mary’s son, George O’Neal, a company driver from Muscatine, IA, contracted the H1N1 virus in late July or early August. He became so ill that he spent more than two months in a Denver-area hospital mostly in a coma.

While on a long-haul run in early August, O’Neal, 40, had difficulty breathing and called an ambulance when breathing became too difficult.

Later that day, doctors called Berardi, O’Neal’s mother, and told her to get to Denver immediately if she wanted to see her son. Doctors put him in a medically induced coma because his lungs were filled with fluid.

His sister, Jennifer Smith, said O’Neal came out of the coma for about eight hours one day in mid-August. O’Neal talked normally and seemed to be improving, but blood thinners intended to prevent clots made him bleed out of his nose before going into cardiac arrest. O’Neal ended up going for several minutes without oxygen to his brain, Smith said.

“At this point, because of the serious lack of oxygen to his brain, there is no way of telling with George,” Smith said. “It’s a very slim chance of recovery.”

In the meantime, the family needed to find a way – any way – to get George home.

Grace on Wings
While George was in the hospital, Smith researched and found an air ambulance charity called Grace on Wings, which helps people who are stranded because of medical injuries.

On Oct. 16, O’Neal was flown home to Iowa in a small jet owned by the Grace on Wings medical ambulance. He’s been placed in a long-term medical care facility that treats patients who require breathing assistance.

Hal Blank, pilot and founder of Grace on Wings, said he and his wife started the nonprofit group as a mission to rescue individuals stranded far from home because of injury or illness. The service obtains medical staffing by doctors and other workers who donate their time. The charity offers flights for only the cost of jet fuel.

Given the millions of truckers who crisscross the country every week, Blank said he expects O’Neal to be just one of many truck drivers the charity will help as it continues.

Because of the expense of moving patients that need ambulance services, Blank said many Americans with debilitating injuries or sicknesses get placed in long-term care facilities, several states from their home.

“Every story breaks your heart. I get very emotional myself because I can feel their pain,” Blank said.

Blank said O’Neal was Grace on Wings’ 59th mission and the third trucker they’ve flown on the charity’s small jet. Dubbed “Nellie,” the plane sports a blue and white paint scheme and the Bible verse 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you has received a gift to use to serve others. Be good servants of God’s various gifts of grace.”

Grace on Wings takes the verse seriously, Blank said.

“We get about four to six calls a day requesting help,” Blank said. “We believe we’re compelled to do this – that the Lord wants us to do it – so that’s why we’re doing it.”

O’Neal’s trip cost about $8,000 in jet fuel, which was largely provided by an anonymous donor.

The only time O’Neal’s family said they’ve heard from George’s company occurred when the carrier let his mother know he was terminated and they would be picking up the truck in Denver.

His family said they hope George’s story will help prevent other truckers from being left on the road, sick or injured without help.

Smith said she’s researching the potential for a law to protect truckers who get sick or injured and become stuck on the road.

“My heart goes out to all those truckers out there,” Smith said. “I feel like there needs to be a law that companies are required to bring drivers home in these situations. We’ve been very resourceful, but there are people out there who don’t know how to get their loved ones home. It’s heartbreaking.”

For more information on Grace on Wings, visit http://www.graceonwings.org/2001/05/welcome.html  or call 877-75-GRACE (754-7223). LL