Driven together

By Greg Grisolano, associate editor

Mary “Candy” Bass doesn’t just believe in guardian angels. She’s friends with hers.

The first time was on April 30, 1987. Candy, 42 at the time, was trucking eastbound on Interstate 40 at mile marker 62 near Grants, N.M., when a pickup with a motor home behind it hit her tractor. High winds blew the motor home into her right steer tire. The impact forced Candy’s cabover truck on its side and partially ejected her body halfway through the windshield.

“I just had a lot of things that were torn to pieces,” Candy says matter-of-factly.

She suffered massive injuries including head trauma that left her with no memory of the crash, a broken right femur, a fractured pelvis, internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, and facial and scalp lacerations. In addition, she had her right ear torn off, as well as all the skin from her right hand as she was dragged along the highway for several hundred feet.

Candy says her last memory of the wreck is the mobile home colliding with her steer tire, but beyond that she has no recollection of the immediate aftermath. She said she does recall snippets of a first responder talking to her and trying to keep her conscious, but her clear memories pick up again in the hospital.

To the rescue

Roughly 85 miles away, a flight paramedic at the University of New Mexico – Albuquerque, and his pilot were about to jump in a twin-engine Cessna 414 air ambulance and head to the crash site. The flight paramedic was a then-34-year-old Jon Osburn, a former Navy hospital corpsman who’d done three tours of duty in Vietnam and was now a graduate student at the university.

Jon recalls the chatter on the radio at the time involved a female crash victim in bad shape. Not long after the plane was airborne, a police report crackling across the radio pronounced the victim deceased on arrival. Reports of her death would be overturned twice more before Jon and his pilot made a daring landing directly on the highway.

“We got closer and the ambulance crew advised that she was alive but in very, very bad shape,” he said. “I looked at (the pilot) and said ‘Let’s go for it …’”

Jon said he initially thought they’d take a more conventional approach and land at the nearest municipal airport to meet a ground-based ambulance for patient transfer. But his pilot, also a Vietnam veteran who flew missions into the bush in southeast Asia, had other ideas.

“As we get closer and closer, he says we’re landing on eastbound I-40,” he said. “They closed the road so we could land at the accident site. And I looked at him and asked him, ‘Are you sure?’… We literally taxied up on the other side of the highway from where the accident was.”

The scene when Jon arrived was grim. First responders were frantically trying to stabilize the woman, who was partially ejected from the cab of her cabover tractor. The truck was not on its wheels. She had been thrown out and dragged by part of the truck that she was still tangled up in.

“She looked like Friday the 13th, the third edition…” Jon said. “It was very horrible. Very gory.”

Jon went to work immediately trying to stabilize her, using military anti-shock trousers and multiple IVs. He also worked to intubate her, but Candy initially resisted. The pair struggled all the way to the hospital until she finally weakened.

“I don’t remember much of this person other than she didn’t look human to be honest with you. Her injuries were that grotesque,” he said. “She had literally been scalped. She also had multiple fractures. We painted the picture to the trauma center. They sent an ambulance to Albuquerque, and when we landed, I had a trauma doctor, I had a respiratory therapist, a trauma nurse, and three paramedics including one driving.”

As they raced from the airport to the research hospital at UNM, Candy’s life hung by a thread.

“If you’ve worked around EMS at all, you have really good calls where everything goes right but the patient dies,” Jon said. “You have other ones where it’s like ‘Oh my Lord, I’ve done everything I can, am I going to pull this one off?’ And then you have this kind of call where it was literally everything clicked.”

A few days later, Jon and the pilot went back to the hospital’s ICU unit. Even though her chances of survival were less than 4 percent, Candy was making noises, a positive sign. That would be the last time they’d see each other as patient and caregiver for the better part of 25 years.

Long road to recovery

According to a letter written on Candy’s behalf by her physician during a 1990 Worker’s Compensation hearing, she spent nearly a month in the university hospital’s trauma center before being discharged on May 21, 1987. While there, she underwent several surgeries, include a skin graft from her left thigh to her right hand and wrist.

Although she was discharged on May 21, she still wasn’t ambulatory, and was flown to Deaconess Hospital in Oklahoma City. She remained at Deaconess a few more weeks until she was discharged in early June.

“The journey from the hospital to where I was able to go back to work was not easy,” Candy said.

Doctors told her she’d never drive a truck again. If the severe nature of the crash wasn’t enough to scare her off for good, the debilitating nature of her injuries would make it impossible for her to do the work. It would take her a few years to prove them wrong.

“Most people, once they have a wreck like that would be scared to death to get in a vehicle again,” she said. “But because I have no memory of it … I remember them passing me on the right and that’s the last thing I remember. In some respects, it’s a good thing because that way I have no fear.”

For the next two years, Candy would continue to undergo surgeries and physical therapy to restore function in her right hand, and to learn to walk again. There would be setbacks as well. In May 1989, she reinjured her hand in a fall while trying to use a walker. Another spill on that

July 4 caused her to refracture her pelvis.

Eventually, she was able to make it back into the cab and get back on the road, continuing a career she’s had for more than four decades.

Now known as “Grandma Candy,” she is a beloved driver who serves as a mentor to countless women in the industry, as well as a willing worker at numerous charity groups, including Special Olympics and Trucker Buddy. She even founded her own charity “Hats for Heroes” to provide ball caps for military veterans with head injuries or burns.

Jon’s life went through a major change as well, as he transitioned from paramedic and pre-hospital care to a career in trucking – first as a driver for Mayflower and now with OOIDA. With more than 28 years in the business and nearly 3 million accident-free miles, Jon’s service resumé includes volunteering with Special Olympics, St. Christopher Fund, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, and the Mary Johnston OOIDA Scholarship Fund.

It would be roughly 20 years before the pair would reunite in trucking behind their mutual love of community service, and several more years before they’d figure out their incredible shared history.

Reunited as friends

There’s a reason Jon and Candy were able to find each other again in trucking. Their big hearts and desire to help others drew them to many of the same charitable causes, including Truckers United for Charities. Earlier this year, they were both recognized for their service to their community by being named 2016 TA Petro Citizen Driver Honorees at an awards ceremony during the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky.

But even after several tours working the various chow lines and events for the group at a host of truck shows, the pair say they still weren’t aware of their previous connection from more than two decades ago.

Candy says that all changed a few years ago at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, when she and Jon and another driver were swapping stories in the parking lot one evening.

“About four years ago, I was smarting off, and Jon and somebody else were standing there. And I said ‘Oh I’m a rebuilt’ (because of the crash),” she said. “I had a pickup towing a motor home (hit me). And Jon said ‘Where?’ And I said ‘New Mexico, on Interstate 40.’”

It wasn’t until Jon started recounting various details about the incident, including a particular injury, that Candy says she knew Jon had been there. She told him she had tried to find out who he was for years after the crash to thank him for saving her life.

“I looked at him and said ‘yes, you were there,’” she said.

The moment of realization is hard for her to put into words even now.

“I can’t really say what I did or what I felt,” she said. “It just happens and you just can’t say.”

For Jon, the reunion, as well as the fact that they both were named Citizen Driver honorees at the same time, has been nothing short of serendipitous.

“What are the odds that we’re both going to get this award?” he said. “What are the odds that I’m standing in a parking lot in Dallas, Texas, and I find somebody that years before, in a different life, had been one of my patients? And that she was such a patient!”

Candy has no problem today summarizing what Jon’s actions that day did for her.

“If it wasn’t for God sending him there, because God had to send him there, because the highway patrol kept telling him I was dead, and I wasn’t,” he said. “He came anyway and he saved my life.”

At an emotional banquet on April 1 in Louisville, Candy and Jon were able to share their story with the world for the first time. TA and Petro Vice President Barry Richards brought Candy to the microphone to give Jon a heartfelt thank you.

“I want to thank this person in front of everybody, because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive standing on this stage,” she told the crowd.

The moment moved Jon as well.

“Candy comes over and gives me a hug and starts crying, and it took everything I had to cowboy up. I did have one tear, but it was a big-ass tear coming down one cheek. And Candy’s crying like a baby giving me a hug. That was the best thank you I’ve ever had for doing something that I thought was just doing my job.”

While Candy credits him with being her angel, Jon says the credit belongs elsewhere.

“The angel was literally the spirit that said ‘Let these guys keep on coming,”’ he said. “Because all it would’ve taken was us to turn around and land again. She probably wouldn’t have survived the trip from the scene to the little hospital to us coming an hour or two later. It was the right time, the right people working their butts off. Everybody pulled that off.” LL