Angel’s last ride: Cardinal Glennon staff turns from healers to heroes

Angel at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis
Angel at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis(Cardinal Glennon)
Published: Jan. 22, 2022 at 1:38 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) -“When you think you’ve seen it all, you’ve seen nothing.” - Jeff Windmill, Paramedic

Cathy Beltre arrived in St. Louis late this summer. Alone in a foreign land, unable to speak much English, she was up against the world. But she had no choice. Her one-year-old son Angel needed a miracle to survive.

Leaving her family behind in Antigua, in the eastern Caribbean. Cathy embarked on a 2,000-mile journey that ended at the front door of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. A trip made possible by the non-profit group World Pediatric Project, which helps arrange care for critically ill children in Caribbean countries.

What doctors discovered was a malnourished child with a cardiac defect. The hope was that a miracle surgery could save Angel’s life. But after days, weeks, and months went by, doctors at Cardinal Glennon finally had to give Cathy the news nobody wanted to tell or hear. Angel was not responding to treatment.

Hope was gone. He was dying, and quickly. Cathy was alone again. Her family could not afford the trip to St. Louis. Angel would die in her arms. She would return to Antigua alone.

But that’s not how this story ends.

When it became apparent that Angel only had days to live, the medical team at Cardinal Glennon, including the pediatric intensive care doctors and nurses, decided this precious little boy, with his grieving mother, would not die alone in a foreign hospital. Teaming up with the World Pediatric Project, Cardinal Glennon leaders went to work. If the family could not come to them, they would go to the family. If Angel could not be saved, there was still a chance they could perform a small miracle and get him home in time for his family to say goodbye. But how, and with so little time?

Angel at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis
Angel at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis(Cardinal Glennon)

Working quickly, the team at Cardinal Glennon booked an airplane. The hospital’s transport team flies routinely on helicopter flights throughout the region for neonatal and pediatric transports – but this was different. This was halfway around the world, and this wasn’t to provide care. This was to deliver the gift of a lifetime. Now they had to find a nurse and paramedic on their team ready to make the trip, and fast.

“It came out of the blue at the last second,” Jeff Windmiller remembered. Windmiller was the chosen paramedic. “Completely unexpected. We were told to get to the ICU, and get ready to fly.”

“I was scheduled to go on vacation, and I get this text: ‘Can you go?’ Rebecca Degenhardt was the chosen nurse. “For this … You bet I can go.”

The clock was ticking. There was no guarantee Angel would make it home in time.

November 21, 7 p.m. Windmiller, Degenhardt, Cathy and Angel board an ambulance at Cardinal Glennon.

Final destination: home.

They headed to the St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia to board the plane but the weather was bad. The flight was delayed. The plane was small. Degenhardt situated herself right next to Angel.

“He was never more than six inches away from me,” Degenhardt said.

By 9 p.m., the plane took off. Windmiller was struck by the quiet, solemn ride in the darkness.

“His mom was really quiet. You wonder what must be going through her mind,” Windmiller said. “Up there in the dark, on this incredible journey, losing her child, but hoping he can hold on for a little while longer.”

This was Windmiller’s first trip abroad. He kept wondering what could go wrong.

Somewhere after midnight the plane stopped in Ft. Lauderdale for fuel. Then on to San Juan for more fuel by daybreak. Angel was still with them.

Degenhardt kept staring at him, just in case.

Angel at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis
Angel at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis(Cardinal Glennon)

“Such a sweet little guy. And big eyes and curly hair. I kept looking at him, and all I could do was ... you know, money means nothing in times like this,” Degenhardt said. “We treat these kids with the same love we would treat our own. It never fails to surprise me how you can see yourself in these families. I kept looking over at Angel’s mother, and all I could think was ‘bless her heart.’”

Degenhardt has been a nurse for 20 years. She has seen most everything. But nothing like this race against time.

“This was intense,” Degenhardt said.

Windmiller was amazed at what was happening.

“I just kept thinking, ‘what would I have done, like this mother, in a foreign country for three months when I couldn’t speak the language, and my child was dying?” Windmiller said.

He also kept looking at Cathy. She rarely spoke, just watched her son. “I could only imagine,” Windmiller said.

The race was now on to Antiqua. Just a few more hours to go.

Around 9 a.m. on November 22, they arrived. A 14-hour journey through the night. An ambulance awaited them, and took them to an Antiqua hospital.

“The hospital was a wild scene,” Windmiller said. “It looked like every doctor and nurse in the hospital was at Angel’s bedside. It was a huge crowd.”

“Every person they could pack into that room was there,” Degenhardt said. “Eight or nine nurses, multiple doctors. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Angel’s family was there too. Angel was reunited with his father, brother and sister. Cathy’s three-month journey was over. She had brought her son home.

The team from SSM stayed and assisted.

Angel at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis
Angel at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis(Cardinal Glennon)

“I think the hardest part was just knowing your best care is just to get him home,” Degenhardt said. “How sad if mom could not have brought him home. How wonderful that she did.”

As nightfall fell, the Cardinal Glennon crew said their goodbyes.

November 23 dawned a beautiful day in Antigua. It was time for the crew to come home. They had done all they could do.

Windmiller reflected on the long flight home.

“God’s presence was revealed through our health care,” Windmiller said. “We live it and we breathe it.”

Degenhardt couldn’t take her mind off the big-eyed, curly-haired little boy.

“Bless his heart,” Degenhardt said. “We did the best thing in the world for him. Life took its natural course.”

On November 25, the team back here in St. Louis received the news of Angel’s passing. The family is incredibly grateful for three days with their child, three days that never seemed possible.

“It’s not our job to interfere with a miracle, if that happens,” Degenhardt said. “And in some small way, this felt like a miracle.”

Two pilots, a security guard, Jeff Windmiller and Rebecca Degenhardt prepare to leave.
Two pilots, a security guard, Jeff Windmiller and Rebecca Degenhardt prepare to leave.(Cardinal Glennon)