Iowa trucker in coma returns home

| 10/19/2009

One minute, Mary Beradi was laughing in delight, describing how her son cracked a smile mid-flight. The next, she’s updating a friend who passed her by.

“He’s back in Davenport,” Mary happily told a friend passing her Monday morning.

Mary’s son George O’Neal, a company driver from Muscatine, IA, contracted the H1N1 virus (swine flu) in late July or early August, and had spent more than two months in a Denver-area hospital mostly in a coma.

On Friday, Oct. 16, George was flown home to Davenport, IA, in a small jet airplane owned by the Grace on Wings medical ambulance charity. He’s been placed in a long-term medical care facility that treats patients who receive breathing assistance.

Grace on Wings called Mary while the plane was in flight, telling her that the doctors and flight crew made it a point to make bubbly, positive conversation in front of the 2-month comatose patient. Doctors said George briefly smiled amid the group’s laughter – a small, but important response.

“It doesn’t seem like a big thing, but it is a big thing after weeks and weeks of nothing,” Mary said Monday morning.

George’s journey
In Denver, CO, during a long-haul run, O’Neal, 40, had difficulty breathing and decided to call an ambulance when he couldn’t go farther.

George, Mary’s firstborn, has always been close to his mother, who remembers when doctors diagnosed him with asthma as a 9-month-old.

Later that day, Aug. 4, doctors called Mary, and told her to get to Denver immediately if she wanted to see her son. He was put into a medically induced coma that day because fluid had filled his lungs.

Mary drove the following day to Denver, where she and two of George’s sons spent time with him and talked to his doctors.

After a week, Mary drove back to Iowa so her grandchildren could prepare for the school year. Within a few days, George woke up, and remained awake for eight hours.

“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I left too soon,’” Mary said. “They put him on the phone for about five minutes.”

“Mom, I’m tired,” George said during a brief conversation. “I’m going back to bed.”

Before hanging up, George told his mother he wanted to go home, and he even argued with her.

“I know you want to go home,” Mary replied. I’m sorry, but no, you can’t go.”

Later in the day, George suffered from complications tied to blood clots, and went several minutes without oxygen to his brain.

In the meantime, the owner of the house Mary shared with George evicted the family. Mary was able to box up some items, but chose to return to Denver rather than worry about preserving all of the family’s belongings.

“I had to be there,” Mary said. “I just couldn’t leave him there alone.”

When Mary returned to Denver, her daughter, Jennifer Smith of Indiana, had found a family near George’s hospital on that offered a bedroom free of rent. The only stipulation: Mary would need to occasionally cook meals for the family.

The strangers quickly became friends. In between long days and many nights at the hospital, Mary shared George’s story with the couple over her homemade vegetable stew, teriyaki salmon, roasted chicken and several helpings of chocolate lava cake.

“They were generous beyond generous,” Mary said. “They gave time, prayer, conversation and companionship.”

One day last week, doctors had Mary sign paperwork, which puzzled her.

Smith, George’s sister, had contacted Grace on Wings, a nonprofit group from Indianapolis that provides medical transport for people who are stranded.

Everyone but Mary had been informed of the impending move, and the good news brought her to tears.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” she recalled saying.

The charity provided three doctors while the trip cost only the price of jet fuel. Unfortunately, the expensive cost of jet fuel nearly left the mission grounded.

An anonymous donor, however, gave almost $8,000 to nearly cover the entire jet fuel bill.

“This has been a real roller coaster ride,” Mary said. “It’s so nice to be home. I’m not sitting alone with him.”

Mary praised the unnamed family in Denver that hosted her, George’s doctors and Grace on Wings for bringing her son home. Truckers, she said, shouldn’t have to rely on the goodwill of others to make it home after sickness or injury.

The only call Mary received from George’s employer was notification by a dispatcher that the company would be picking up his truck. She has yet to pick up his cooler, Crockpot and mini-refrigerator the company removed from his truck.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” she said. “Truckers are exposed to so much. They’re fueling up, driving; they’re eating on the run. They stop when they see a car in trouble, and they put themselves on the line all the time.”

“I hope everyone will give consideration and speak to their representatives, their senators, because something needs to be in place to protect the truckers of America,” Mary said. “We wouldn’t have anything if they weren’t moving it over the road.”

On Monday, Mary recalled their last phone conversation, and the relief she felt Friday when he made it home more than 10 weeks after he made his last run for Wenger Trucking.

He’s home, and ready to heal, she said.

“I believe in a restoration for George – I do – with everything in me I do,” she said. “I think it will take time, but that’s OK. The most important thing people can do as far as I’m concerned is pray, pray pray. Just keep lifting him up to God.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer