CHATHAM, NJ - It was a race against time to get 12-year-old Chatham resident Josh Fernandez from his home to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in two hours for a lung transplant on Wednesday.
Stormy weather had wiped out Plans A and B, which would have transported the patient by helicopter. Plan C called for driving to Philadelphia during rush hour and a torrential downpour.
"To think of the situation, you would have to say 'no way','' Chatham Emergency Squad Captain Connie Hartman said. "Our goal was to get Josh to CHOP (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia) and everyone did what they had to do. I never had a doubt that we would get there in time."
The Chatham Borough Police, the Chatham Emergency Squad, Morris County Communication Center and New Jersey State Police all worked in coordination to get Fernandez to the hospital in time for the transplant operation. According to his mother, Claudia Fernandez, her son is still within the 48-hour critical time period, but in stable condition.
When Claudia Fernandez got the call from the hospital, she ran out of St. Patrick Parish and ran into friend Peggy Gentile. They decided to call Tim Brown, a Chatham Emergency Squad member who also works for NorthSTAR, which transports patients by helicopter. Brown previously had set up the action plans to get Josh to the hospital when the call came, even scheduling a practice helicopter landing at the Chatham Middle School for June 8.
Brown, who is a backyard neighbor of the Fernandez family, is a medic with NorthSTAR and plans such transportation for a living. But this one was different since it was a neighbor he had met. Josh had only been on the lung transplant list for a few weeks before the call.
"This is the first time I've actually known the person," Brown said. "It was pretty emotional. The ladies at St. Patrick Parish are amazing and have done so much to help the family. I'm just happy to be a small part of it. I'm proud to be a member of the Chatham Emergency Squad."
It took Brown four minutes to determine that there would be no flight because of the weather, so he contacted the Morris County Communication Center. As soon as he called and gave Josh's address, all the information came up on the screen and everyone involved was notified.
"We had asked for volunteers to keep a five-hour window open for this and we had such an overwhelming response," Hartman said. "Our members never disappoint."
When Lt. Gibbons and Sgt. Mike Mahoney arrived to give escort the ambulance to the heliport, they learned that plans had changed.
"When we arrived at 4:37 p.m. all the plans had changed and the members of the emergency squad assembled in minutes and Josh and his mom were packed into the ambulance," Gibbons said.
The Chatham police quickly blocked off some access to Main Street in order to escort the ambulance out of Chatham and onto Route 24, to the Garden State Parkway and their handoff point at Exit 129.
"Sgt. Mahoney did a really good job driving until we passed him off at Exit 129 to Trooper Tony Casciano, who intercepted the transport on the fly," Gibbons said. "It was remarkable to witness the synergy between the Morris County Communication Center and the state troopers. What they did to get him there was as important as the surgeon who did the actual operation."
According to Gibbons, New Jersey State Troopers communicated by cell phone to find an alternate route to CHOP because of construction on the Ben Franklin Bridge. All this through traffic and rain.
"I was surprised and overwhelmed by the support," Claudia Fernandez said. "I thought I was alone, but I have such wonderful people and friends around me. I call them my angels. It's amazing."
Josh Fernandez had sent an Instagram message to his friends saying that he was getting new lungs. And he was playing video games and talking to paramedics on the ride to the hospital.
"Josh was enjoying the trip and laughing," his mother said. "He always dreamed of becoming a police officer and he loved having the police cars surrounding the ambulance with their sirens on."
Despite the rush hour and the poor weather conditions, the path to the hospital parted "like the Red Sea," said Karen Wittmer, whose daughter is a classmate of Josh's.
Hartman noted the great work done by the police and Chatham Emergency Squad members Jim Martin, who was driving the ambulance, and his navigator Tom Patterson and Dave Elliot.
"Our motto is 'Neighbors helping neighbors" and as a parent, a person, you do whatever you can to get someone where they need to be," Hartman said. "Chatham is such a great community. I'm just proud to be a part of it."
Editor's note: Fernandez was born premature and was diagnosed with "Bronchiolitis obliterans."
Friends of the Fernandez family are putting together an online fundraiser to help with living and other expenses related to Josh's lung transplant. For more information please visit St Patrick's website. Information and links should be available early next week.