Jack and Nancy Vaughn of Easton, Pa.
Photo credit: Courtesy Photo/The Express-Times
EMTs Cory Allen, left, and Tara King braved Superstorm Sandy to transport by ambulance a heart transplant recipient from Easton to Philadelphia for his new heart.
Photo credit: Express-Times Photo by Sue Beyer
Nancy Vaughn and her husband Jack were about to hunker down in their Easton home ahead of Superstorm Sandy on Monday afternoon [Oct. 29] when the phone rang.
Neither had any inclination to venture out of their Spring Garden Street home, but the voice at the end of the line had an offer too enticing to pass up.
The heart Jack had been praying for was waiting in Philadelphia.
For more than 30 years, Jack Vaughn has battled heart ailments. A series of pacemakers through the years kept him going, but he was eventually forced to retire from the Riegel Paper Mill in Pohatcong Township because of his condition, Nancy Vaughn said.
George Persin, his Allentown cardiologist, said Jack Vaughn's severe congestive heart failure had made life difficult for him over the last six months; a heart transplant was needed.
"He was progressively going down hill," Persin said.
Normally, the heart would have gone to a patient sicker than Jack Vaughn, said Nicole Hornsby, a nurse practitioner at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. But no one in Philadelphia met the blood type and size of the heart, and Sandy's winds kept planes and helicopters from flying the heart somewhere else.
Jack Vaughn, 75 miles away, was the best candidate available, she determined.
The trick was finding a way to get the Vaughns to the hospital. The senior citizens weren't willing to make the trip alone, and the Easton Police Department was too busy with the storm to send an escort, Hornsby said.
She began calling Lehigh Valley ambulance squads to see what could be done. The first turned her down, saying the trip was too dangerous. She placed another call to Suburban EMS in Palmer Township.
Barry Albertson, Suburban's executive director, recognized the task.
Pounding winds, driving rain and flying debris would greet anyone who braved conditions on the road, but a new heart would give Jack Vaughn a fresh lease on life. He said he wouldn’t order anyone to make the hazardous journey, but he asked for volunteers.
Tara King, 23, and Cory Allen, 21, stepped forward. Both had already worked 12-hour shifts but opted to make the trip rather than wait on standby as Sandy ripped through the region. They each called their families before leaving, but Allen didn’t say where he was headed. He only told them he was staying out to help.
“I just had to put my family at ease,” he said.
King, a part-time worker and East Stroudsburg University senior, and Allen, a second-generation EMT, said they began to second guess themselves as they drove to the Vaughn's home. The wind was already picking up, and they hadn't even hit the vulnerable open highways. Ultimately, they decided it was the right choice as they arrived at the Vaughn’s home at 6:30 p.m.
"If that was our grandfather, we would want them (the EMTs) to bend over backward for our family," King said.
Jack Vaughn hopped into the back with Allen, while Nancy Vaughn climbed into the passenger seat with King. Only two important items made the trip with them -- a picture of Jesus, and Freddy, their 7-year-old granddaughter Morgan’s stuffed purple dog.
The girl had given her favorite toy to Nancy when she underwent back surgery, and she had promised Morgan that Freddy would be along for Jack Vaughn’s surgery.
For an hour and a half, the four made small talk as they drove west on Route 22 and swung south on the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In the back, Jack Vaughn and Allen talked about life and their shared interest in motorcycles. Up front, Nancy Vaughn and King discussed life, their families and faith while King swerved around downed trees, street signs, traffic cones and branches.
A wind gust nearly pushed them off the highway, so King began driving in the middle of the road so they wouldn’t be battered off of it.
About 8 p.m., the Suburban ambulance pulled into the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Jack Vaughn was taken inside, and hospital staff began preparing him for surgery. Nancy hugged, kissed and blessed the two EMTs before running after him.
“To me, this was truly a miracle. We thank God every day for sending them to us. Nobody could get us in to get this heart,” Nancy Vaughn said before also thanking the family who donated their loved one’s organs.
Surgery began 10 a.m. Tuesday and finished three hours later. The procedure went flawlessly, Nancy Vaughn said, and her husband has been removed from the intensive care unit. The Vaughns are regulars at the Wesley United Methodist Church, and their pastor’s words haven’t left their minds since the surgery.
“He said, ‘The Lord will hear your needs if you just keep praying.’ By gosh, they were," Jack Vaughn said.
The EMTs left Philadelphia after seeing the Vaughns admitted, but the trip back was even worse, they said. The winds had grown stronger, and branches, chunks of Styrofoam and debris blew across the road.
At mile marker 37 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, King slammed on the breaks to avoid striking a 50-foot tree blocking the entire road. With no cellphone reception, Allen had to run into the storm to an emergency phone to call for help. He’s still not sure how he escaped unscathed.
“Something’s going to hit me,” he recalled thinking. “I’ve been out here too long.”
A road crew came through and cleared the road an hour later, and the pair safely arrived back in the Lehigh Valley around midnight. After a short rest, they were both sent out to a fire in Palmer Township, and they didn’t hear how Jack Vaughn fared until Friday. The two beamed upon hearing the news and of the Vaughns’ praises.
“We don’t do it for the thanks," Allen said, "but it's nice when it happens.”