As a registered nurse and single mother, Sharla Jo Meredith was well practiced in the fine art of not giving up. Still, there are only so many things that faith and determination can change.
The skin disease Sharla has, Pyoderma gangrenosum (PG), has no known cure, primarily because little research has been done on this rare condition. PG causes the skin to form large ulcers that become extensive and painful within days and sometimes hours. The prevailing medical wisdom said that surgery and debridement (removal of damaged tissue) were too dangerous for people with this disease. Sharla had already moved with her daughter from her home state of Michigan to Tennessee because her rapidly declining health meant she needed to be nearer to support and a research hospital. Even in Tennessee, however, her condition continued to worsen and became life-threatening.
[Left: Sharla before her PG diagnosis. Right: Sharla just after skin grafting treatment; shown with nurse Hannah Hays and Dr. Matthew Pompeo.]
However, Sharla persistently researched PG until, in October of last year, she found an article by Dr. Matthew Pompeo, a hyperbaric medicine specialist in the wound care unit at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas. In the article, Pompeo argued that PG patients could be successfully treated with skin grafting and debridement. Thrilled to have found some hope, Sharla contacted Dr. Pompeo through the email address at the end of the article, and he set up an appointment with her for December.
Getting to Treatment
The problem was that PG is an autoinflammatory disorder that is controlled with immunosuppressant therapy. In other words, the very medicine that Sharla was taking to ease her symptoms was also suppressing her immune system, making it dangerous for her to fly on a commercial airline. Sharla needed to travel from Tennessee to Dallas, and her research skills again led her in the right direction: she found Angel Flight South Central, who coordinated a couple of long flight legs to get her to this much-needed treatment.
Because AFSC’s flights are donated by pilots flying small aircraft, a trip of this length has to be broken up into more than one leg. AFSC volunteer Neil Cohen flew Sharla from Nashville to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In Pine Bluff, Sharla had lunch with Neil and her next pilot, Dan Elkins. Dan then flew her the rest of the journey from Pine Bluff to Dallas.
[Left: Sharla on the first leg of her trip with pilot Neil Cohen. Right: Dan Elkins, the pilot who flew her the rest of the way to Dallas.]
Sharla says the trip to Dallas was a blessing. “I flew on wings of compassion and mercy on December 11, 2017, realizing how blessed I was to be an American with access to such services. And greater still to be in the company of great pilots, who were selfless and sacrificial in every way. They lengthened the legs of their journey to make sure I got to my appointment. They bought me lunch and even took me to the hospital guest hotel, helping me carry bags and making a Walgreen’s stop for some essentials. They offered humor and hope throughout the trip. They treated me like family and made me feel safe in the midst of a scary disease…. Words cannot express the gratitude I have for these pilots and all who work to coordinate these flights.”
Keeping Family Together
Sharla had arrived safely in Dallas, but her journey was just beginning. Since that day, she has been hospitalized at Texas Health Presbyterian undergoing multiple wound debridements and skin grafts, testing, and pain relief and recovery.
Sharla's daughter, Daveigh Jo, was still back in Tennessee, so this gave Angel Flight South Central another opportunity to help. AFSC also provides compassion flights for humanitarian purposes, so it was a natural fit to transport Daveigh Jo to visit her mother in Dallas. The eight-year-old first visited at the end of January, flown by Neil Cohen and Owen Younger. Owen even brought Daveigh Jo and her caregivers straight to Sharla’s room at the hospital. Daveigh Jo has another visit scheduled in March. She calls her visits “Mission Adventure Dallas.”
Daveigh Jo travels to Dallas and back with Kaitlin, a 21-year-old college student who first met Daveigh Jo at a summer camp. Kaitlin has volunteered to accompany the girl on her trips both because she cares about the family and because she had written a paper about Angel Flight and was interested in the organization.
[Left: Daveigh Jo and caregiver Kaitlin traveling with AFSC pilot Owen Younger. Topmost photo: Daveigh Jo snuggling with mom after her safe arrival.]
Sharla is hopeful that she’ll be heading home next month. “We’ve decided to kick butt this year,” she says. “Goodbye disease! Hello gratitude! And at the top of the gratitude list...Angel Flight SC.”
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Sharla Jo Meredith has created a site to support people with Pyoderma gangrenosum. The site will soon launch.