Joey Burns' life has undergone yet another dramatic change — this time for the better.
With an outpouring of financial support from the community, the generosity of a medical air transport service and prayer, 21-year-old Joey, who has been bound to a hospital bed and customized wheelchair for the last five years, arrived this week at a new home in Pennsylvania.
Joey's problems began on Oct. 8, 2005, at Delta Woods Park in Spring Hill when a flag football game turned rough. Then 16, Joey was playing for a team fielded by Christian Church in the Wildwood when he fell on his head. He suffered brain damage so severe that doctors gave him only a 10 percent chance of survival, said his mother, Tania Burns.
Joey survived, but with paralysis, unable to speak or swallow. His organ functions are facilitated with a permanent tracheotomy, an oxygen hose, a feeding tube and constant nursing care. On Aug. 20, his 21st birthday, his Florida Medicaid benefits expired.
Tania and Ray Burns learned recently that Pennsylvania offers a more lenient medical insurance package that will continue to meet Joey's needs.
After months of planning and fundraising for the costly move, the family — Tania, 50; Ray, 52, and sons Christopher, 15; Anthony, 13, and Joey — left their foreclosed home Monday en route to Washington County, Pa., south of Pittsburgh.
It was a tearful departure, except for Joey, who wore his brightest smile as a Hernando County Fire Rescue squad transferred him to a medical bed in a King Air 200 aircraft, the flight donated by AeroCare of Chicago, Fort Lauderdale and Phoenix.
Joey couldn't travel conventionally. He needed an air ambulance — at an estimated cost of $15,000 — or ground ambulance transport, which would have cost about $6,000.
But the family was strapped. Ray Burns lost his building trades job when the construction industry collapsed. And paying Joey's medical bills meant they couldn't meet their mortgage. Then Ray suffered two heart attacks and required heart bypass surgery.
Recent fundraisers for the family have provided about $11,000, said Jeff Jacobs, the family minister at Christian Church of the Wildwood, which led the effort.
But most helpful was the offer of the free medical flight, on a plane equipped essentially as a hospital critical care unit, staffed with a paramedic and registered nurse. AeroCare flew into the Hernando County Airport on Monday morning to pick up Joey.
It happened in a roundabout way.
Jeff Pasmore, the co-founder of Shine the Light Ministries, which serves Hernando and Pasco counties, had helped the Burns family in the past. When he read an update about the family's struggles in the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 1, Pasmore thought to himself, "I wish I could help."
It dawned on him that Joey's greatest need was transportation. He e-mailed seven corporations with the request for a flight from Hernando County to Pennsylvania. Initially, none responded.
So, he decided to follow up with phone calls. But first, Pasmore got on his knees.
"God," he prayed, "I need two things to happen. God, help this family and open the hearts of businessmen I am about to call."
Forty minutes later, before Pasmore began punching digits, his phone rang. The caller, David Schult Sr., national director of sales for AeroCare, wanted to know more about Joey and the Burns family.
Later, Schult said the message had been shared around the company in a group e-mailing.
"Within minutes," said Schult, "my e-mail filled up with others from the company. I got queries, 'What can we do to help?' "
Fourteen women lined up at his desk, all wanting to help.
"This was not your average e-mail," he said. "It pushed everybody. This was unbelievable."
Pasmore's e-mail included a link to the Times September story.
"I was just shocked by the story. I was empowered to do something," Schult said.
He took the request to AeroCare's CEO, Joseph D. Cece.
His response, according to Schult: "Do whatever it takes to make this happen, without regard to cost. Just make it happen."
And so AeroCare did.
Meanwhile, some longtime friends, Terry and Kelly Hunt of Scenery Hill, Pa. — the Hunt children used to play with young Joey when both families lived in Colorado — found a truck-driving job for Ray Burns in nearby Cannonsburg, Pa. While Ray has been working there since January, the Hunts have provided him with free room and board.
A number of the Burns family's friends in Hernando gathered at the airport Monday morning, all teary-eyed.
"Bittersweet," said Kara Clark of Spring Hill, a best friend of Tania.
Tania Burns, noting Joey's countenance, remained upbeat as her eyes flooded with tears.
"He knows he's going somewhere," she said of her son.
Ray would be waiting at the airport in Pennsylvania.
He had found an affordable house, a frame dwelling of 900 square feet for $11,000 with a basement that can be finished.
"It's a mess," Tania said. "But it's got a roof and walls."
Until the house is made habitable, Tania said, the family will try to obtain a small camper to park on the property. Or, they'll buy inflatable air mattresses on which to sleep in the house.
The Hunt family is forwarding the $11,000 for the purchase, and the Burnses will pay back their friends as if it were a mortgage.
Explaining her family's willingness to help, Terry Hunt said, "You look at a family like this: If the shoe were on the other foot, they'd do the same thing. They're a close family. I think that's what we're all called about."
The Hunts, both 44, are not wealthy. Kelly is co-owner of a used car dealership. Terry is in charge of an entrepreneur program at California (Pa.) University, where she is also studying for a doctoral degree in leadership management.
Tania Burns is hoping that being close to Pittsburgh and its hospitals will help Joey as he continues his therapy.
Until their new house is livable, Joey has been accepted at Greenery Specialty Care Center in Cannonsburg, Pa., one of few facilities that accepts clients needing high respiratory care. "And," Tania said, "it's only 7.8 miles away from where we'll be."
Tania, Joey's primary caregiver for five years, will be there as often as possible. She must get the younger children enrolled in school and work on the house.
To facilitate Joey's acclimation, his part-time nurse for 41/2 years in Spring Hill, Trish McGraw, will spend three weeks at the Greenery with him.
"He won't know anybody there," his mother said. "With Trish, he will know somebody."
Joey's hearing is intact, but no one knows how much he comprehends. "He smiles," Tania said.
To spiff up for the move, Joey recently got his first professional haircut in five years. Tania had been buzz-cutting it.
Brian Hammond, a stylist with MGM Hair Studio and Nails on Mariner Boulevard, donated the cut at Joey's home.
It was just one of many donations for which the family is grateful. Said Terry Hunt: "The outpouring down there has been tremendous."
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]