Thank you also to Bob Welch for writing a great story! I hope that Brandon is doing well.
It was almost like last week's white-knuckle return of the damaged space shuttle Discovery: Could seriously ill Brandon Burton, a recent Churchill High School graduate, get safely home from Hong Kong?
On Wednesday afternoon at Eugene Airport, the answer was yes, thanks to the man walking next to his wheelchair, Dr. Larry Dunlap, a Eugene doctor who flew nearly 15,000 miles in three days to accompany Brandon home.
And thanks to a community that, after hearing the Burtons' story, responded with a whatever-it-takes attitude.
"What a relief," said Jennifer Burton, Brandon's mother, after about two dozen friends and family members applauded her son's arrival. "We have so much gratitude for everyone in our `village.' "
Brandon, having lost about 30 pounds since contracting a virus in late July, looked thin and overwhelmed when seeing the crowd. He hung his head and cried as people took turns hugging him.
Dunlap, 63, despite the stressful journey, looked so collected it appeared as if he had just walked out of a Land's End catalog. Amazing for a guy who hadn't really slept in two days. "Brandon had some leg swelling that required a little intravenous medicine, but other than than that: no problems."
The Burtons' plight came to light last week when it was learned a virus the 18-year-old had contracted on a trip to Asia had morphed into a disorder called myocarditis, serious enough to be fatal if undetected. He was taken to Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Though his father, Paul, flew to Hong Kong, the family faced an agonizing Catch-22: After weeks in an Intensive Care Unit, Brandon needed to get home, but his Hong Kong doctor wouldn't allow him to fly unless accompanied by a doctor. That would cost nearly $10,000 and the Burtons, frankly, didn't have it. Jennifer Burton had spent days on the phone, trying to find an organization to help. Nothing.
But after The Register-Guard reported the story last week, the local community responded. The catalyst for the happy homecoming was Candice Barr, executive director of the Lane County Medical Society - and, not incidentally, the mother of an 18-year-old boy.
She swung into action Thursday with the intensity of a special ops commander who had a soldier down behind enemy lines.
"She was just so amazingly `can-do,' " Jennifer Burton said. "The minute she called, the whole demeanor of the situation changed. She was like: `We can make this happen.' "
For starters, Barr donated 100,000 of her own frequent-flier miles to pay for a doctor to make the trip. She then arranged a three-way phone conversation Friday with Dr. Chi Yuen Wong, Brandon's cardiologist in Hong Kong; Dr. Michael Menen, a cardiologist with Oregon Cardiology in Eugene; and Jennifer Burton.
"It was only fair that whatever doctor was going to Hong Kong know what he or she was getting into," Barr said.
Menen came away from the conversation convinced Brandon was getting excellent care, was extremely sick - "he'd basically had signs of congestive heart failure" - and yet should be able to make the trip. But covering for vacationing doctors, Menen couldn't go himself.
Barr wasn't deterred. "My short list was someone who was medically sound, had a big heart and had a passport," she said. "That's not a hard combination to find with doctors."
On Friday afternoon, she connected with Dunlap, a recently retired emergency room doctor who has made trips to such places as Haiti and Guatemala as part of the volunteer-driven Northwest and Cascade medical teams.
Dunlap was in the midst of a mini-family reunion. But he listened to Barr, hung up the phone and turned to his wife, Sandie, a CPR and emergency medical instructor at Sacred Heart. "Whataya think of this adventure?" he said.
Said Sandie: "If this were one of our children ... ."
End of discussion. He was going.
When Dunlap got back to Barr, she double-checked that he was still licensed and had medical malpractice insurance. Negative on the latter, he said. "But I can't worry about that now. I'm going."
When Jennifer Burton heard the news, she broke into tears.
The trip was far more complicated - and dangerous - than some might expect. It wasn't about simply finding someone with medical credentials and a measurable pulse. It was about finding
a highly trained emergency room doc who could leave within days - and risk 15 hours in the air with a patient whose condition was far from stable. About gathering extensive information on Brandon's condition. About working with United Airlines. And about finding particular instruments and meds, then getting them through airport security.
Dr. Helen Miller, who heads up the local chapter of the Disaster Medical Assessment Team, met Dr. Chuck McCart of Roseburg, a disaster team member, at Interstate 5's Glenwood exit to get an advanced life-support kit he had. Like a relay runner passing the baton, she handed the kit off to Dunlap.
Meanwhile, Barr and Jennifer Burton talked on the phone off and on during the weekend. "The more we talked," Barr said, "the more convinced I became that this was a family worthy of being lifted up by the community. These are people who had stayed overnight in their car in Seattle waiting for Paul to get a passport.
But the trip got off to a bad start Monday morning when Barr and Dunlap got to the Eugene Airport and learned the flight to San Francisco had been delayed 90 minutes. That would leave only a sliver of time in SF to make the Hong Kong connection.
No time to check Dunlap's bag, they decided. He'd need to carry it on - and get syringes, drugs and the like through security. "When that bag got through the other side," Barr said, "we all just exhaled."
Once in Hong Kong, Dunlap spent only 10 hours on the ground before the trio began the trip back to Eugene. They had a nearly four-hour wait in San Francisco. Once they arrived in Eugene, Brandon was taken to Sacred Heart Medical Center's post-coronary unit.
"It's been an experience," Paul Burton said. "We're very, very happy to be home."
Beyond Dunlap, others had stepped up to help the family. The University of Oregon, where Jennifer works, bent over backward to accommodate her. The Burtons' church, Emerald Baptist, featured the family in a special prayer meeting and took a special offering for them. By Wednesday morning, 35 people had donated $2,708 to a fund set up at Pacific Continental Bank. And Papa's Pizza donated half a day's profits to the family.
"When I got home from work the night after the article ran, our answering machine was full and the phone didn't stop ringing," Jennifer Burton said.
Her son won't be back on the rugby field anytime soon; "he's got a tough road ahead," Dunlap said. But he's home.
As people crowded around Brandon at the airport, his grandmother, Johanna Dahlin, broke away to give Dr. Dunlap a hug.
" `Thanks' doesn't cut it," she whispered.
Bob Welch can be reached at 338-2354.(Copyright, The Eugene Register-Guard, All Rights Reserved)