Think you don’t know a health care hero? Think harder


JeffKeeling_webColorBy Jeff Keeling

I met a real-life hero Sunday evening. His name is Joe Vermeal, and in 1944, when he was just 17 and weighed all of 110 pounds, the Hoboken, N.J. native was piloting an amphibious landing craft onto Pacific beaches whose sand was being discolored by the blood of American and Japanese boys.

A group of fourth, fifth and sixth-graders and a couple other leaders from our church were visiting Joe for the first time Sunday evening. We’re looking forward to going back, helping him take care of little chores, and getting to know him better.

Joe patrolled the streets of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb attack there. Sunday, the devout Catholic called the inhumane Japanese treatment of American POWs and the American A-bomb attacks both “very sinful.”

But in 1944 and 1945, Joe was just a kid, quickly turning into a man and following orders. Enlisted sailors, he said, didn’t know any broad details of what was going on and why. If his boat was ordered to transport wounded fighters to a hospital ship, that’s what happened.

Joe saw plenty of things he didn’t want to see, things he shouldn’t have seen. He did what he was ordered to do, having pestered his parents into letting him enlist and join his two older brothers, and having convinced the doctor at enlistment he was strong enough to be a sailor despite being significantly below the required weight.

“He said, ‘if you can carry that (110-pound) seabag across this room, you’re in,’ Joe told us. “Well, once you gave me a challenge, that was it.”

He developed asbestosis, probably from asbestos exposure in the Navy, and now in his late 80’s and a widower, the hero Joe relies on heroes every day. They drive him from his south Johnson City home to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home (he moved here two years ago because of Johnson City’s VA). They treat him with dignity, respect and the utmost skill as he copes with the maladies sure to arrive when someone lives to be nearly 90. They salute him when he visits the VA campus.

Those van drivers, nurses, doctors, and techs are heroes to Joe. You can take their commitment and sacrifice to patients and spread it through our region’s health care systems, from hospitals and large physician practices to small dental or chiropractic offices, and be assured that heroes abound. A kind word; a deftly administered IV; a successful surgery – all these and more, delivered with compassion and skill, represent health care heroism, and they’re delivered throughout the Tri-Cities many times each day.

That particular type of heroism is one our sister publication, The Business Journal of Tri-Cities TN/VA, has honored for a number of years with its annual “Healthcare Heroes” issue and celebration each July. We’re looking right now for 2015’s Healthcare Heroes, whom we’ll honor at a luncheon July 9, and we need your help.

If you think of a healthcare hero you know, please take a few moments to offer a written explanation of why that person deserves to be in this year’s group, and email it to You’ll be glad you did.



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