Anonymous gift allows trucker in H1N1 coma to fly home

| 10/16/2009

A long-haul trucker who fell ill with the H1N1 flu was scheduled to return home Friday afternoon, Oct. 16, for the first time since early August.

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

O’Neal’s family, including sister Jennifer Smith of Indiana, and mother Mary Bernardi of Muscatine, IA, have worked for weeks to fly George home. Because of the help of several other individuals and an anonymous donation to cover the jet fuel bill, George was scheduled to fly home Friday.

“It’s been a very long, difficult ordeal,” Smith told Land Line. “He likes trucking, and has been a driver for three years. But his five kids want him home. They love their dad and they want him home now.”

O’Neal called his mother seeking advice on that early August day.

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

Later that day, doctors called Bernardi and told her to get to Denver immediately if she wanted to see her son. Doctors put George in a medically induced coma because his lungs were filled with fluid.

George came out of the coma for about eight hours one day in mid-August, Smith said. George 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. George 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, Smith researched and found that an air ambulance charity called Grace on Wings, which helps people who are stranded because of medical injuries.

Hal Blank, founder of Grace on Wings and the charity’s pilot, said he and his wife started the charity as a mission. The service obtains medical staffing by doctors and other workers who donate their time, and offers flights for only the cost of jet fuel.

Blank said George is Grace on Wings’ 59th mission and the third trucker they’ve helped.

“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.”

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

The Swine flu, also known as novel H1N1, has affected several truckers. On Aug. 13, driver Kendall Stoner, 45, of Hagerstown, MD, died after being taken to the emergency room with swine flu symptoms.

The flu’s outbreak has prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning and guidelines for truck drivers in the spring. One guideline for cleaning truck cabs of drivers who may be infected is available here.

OOIDA member Bernard Ziegenhorn, also of Muscatine, IA, said media coverage of George’s ordeal spurred him to sign up for a flu shot.

“I just decided I’m getting that flu shot,” Ziegenhorn said.

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

Smith said the only contact her family has had from George’s company occurred when they let his mother know he was terminated and they would be picking up the truck in Denver.

“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.”

– by Charlie Morasch, staff writer