Widow hopes to inspire others to speak up: Ron Luna didn’t have covid when he died, but it ‘caused everything that went wrong’
Dian Luna is sharing the story of her family's tragedy and heartache hoping she might inspire others, as the new year begins, to make a resolution to speak up in challenging circumstances. She can't help but believe now that if she and her husband, Ron Luna, had spoken up in a stressful setting, he might still be alive.
Ron, 75, didn't die of covid, but he probably died because of it. "It contributed to and caused everything that went wrong," Dian said.
When both of them had the virus back in May, it was another challenge among several that they had faced together in their 54 years of marriage. Their cases weren't terribly severe. They had the recommended monoclonal antibodies treatment, recovered and moved on with their lives in West Plains.
A proposal by proxy
They had started dating in 1965 when Dian (then Dian Terry) was a senior in Gainesville High School. Ron and his twin brother, Don, had graduated from GHS in 1963. Dian graduated in 1966.
The Luna twins were drafted into the Army in 1965, and Ron was serving with the 25th Infantry in Vietnam several months later when he proposed to Dian by proxy. With the help of his mother, Helen Ebrite Luna, Ron picked out a ring from a catalog, and on Christmas Eve, Helen and her husband, Joe, invited Dian to their house on Harlin Drive in Gainesville.
Dec. 24, 1966, was a "snowy and icy" evening, Dian said, remembering the occasion. She and her dad, John Raymond Terry, made it into Gainesville, but the town's snow-packed streets were too slick for their car to make it up the hill. "Dad and I walked up the hill from the square," Dian said. Raymond Terry slipped and fell on the way, "But he didn't say a word. He just kind of limped," she said.
At the Lunas' home, Helen said, "We have something to give you from Ron," and then "Joe put the ring on my finger, and said, 'Ron wants to ask you if you'll marry him,'" Dian recalled.
She said yes.
When he could, Raymond Terry went to the doctor and learned that he'd broken a bone in his leg when he fell while climbing the hill to the Lunas’ house.
Ron and Dian were married in April 1967, seven days after Ron returned from Vietnam. As they were driving away from their wedding in Ron's little blue Mustang, "there was this big kaboom!" Dian said. "Someone had put a cherry bomb under the car."
Fresh from serving with the infantry in Vietnam, "Ron almost jumped out of the car before he realized he wasn't in danger," she said. Later, when they were living at Fort Hood, Texas, where Ron was based next, she found him one night sitting in the little hallway of their apartment with his rifle. When she asked him what was wrong, he said, apparently sleep-walking, "Go back to bed. It's not your watch yet."
A love for flying – and trucking
After his discharge, the Lunas lived in Kansas City and later in Tulsa; in both cities, Ron worked for Trans World Airlines, which honored him as "Man of the Year" for writing a training manual used in TWA training for ramp service personnel. The award included a seven-day trip to Paris, France, for him and Dian.
In 1980, they bought a portion of Luna Truck Line, which had been owned and operated by his granddad, Rufus Luna, and then his dad, Joe, for decades. For Ron, it was a lifelong dream come true. Later, living in Gainesville and then West Plains, they shared ownership of the truck line with partners James and Charlene Dawson of West Plains and operated freight terminals in nine cities in four states.
The truck line flourished for nearly 20 years – until it didn't.
The company's failure was another one of the heartbreaking challenges the Lunas endured. And, as it turned out, the whole nation suffered a broken heart on the day their liquidation auction was held: Sept. 11, 2001.
They struggled to find work after that and lived in Springfield for five years, where the job prospects were a little better.
Next came Ron's health challenges: He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006 and it was treated with radiation seeding, which resulted in trips to out-of-state specialists and the need for five follow-up transurethral resectioning of the prostate (TURP) procedures between 2007 and 2010 – and eventually led to the removal of his bladder in 2011.
He endured other medical issues, and in 2013, he underwent double-bypass, open-heart surgery.
‘Where the bad stuff starts’
Most recently, three months after he and Dian recovered from covid in May 2021, Ron began having stomach pain. On Aug. 10 Dian accompanied him to see his primary care doctor.
"This," says Dian, "is where the bad stuff starts."
They thought Ron's stomach pain might have been caused by food poisoning, but it persisted, so Ron called his doctor and was told to come in that day. After they were led into an exam room, the doctor's nurse came to check Ron's vital signs. She then left the room only to return later "all geared up for covid – even though we weren't there for any covid symptoms and we'd had covid earlier," Dian said.
The nurse said the doctor had instructed her to test Ron for covid and to give him medicine for nausea. She told them the doctor said they should go home and call the office in three days if the pain continued.
"The doctor told the nurse to do this. He didn't even stick his head in the door," Dian said. "If he had come in and given Ron an exam and pressed on his stomach where he said it hurt, I just know they would have found the problem."
But neither of them spoke up. Neither insisted that the doctor come in to do the exam. Now Dian wishes they had. Instead, they went home, where Ron's condition steadily worsened.
Three days later, he was in crisis. "He got so disoriented, he couldn’t even brush his teeth," Dian said.
She called the doctor's office, and the nurse told them the office was closing early and they should head on over to the emergency room.
Dian drove Ron there about 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 13. He was able to walk into the hospital, but in the triage area, "they couldn't get a blood pressure," she said, adding, "he was hurting so bad."
The ER medical team used a defibrillator to "shock" Ron's heart back into the right rhythm, but Dian said his heart rate remained high and his blood pressure stayed low. "They had to work on that all day and all night," she said.
A CT scan revealed the cause of Ron's stomach pain. He had a blocked bowel, and the intestine was tangled in the tubing connected to the urostomy bag Ron had had since having his bladder removed. The resulting infection had been growing steadily in those three days, and now Ron was septic.
The nearest hospital with an ICU bed: Denver
While the ER staff used every tool in their medical arsenal to ease Ron's misery, his problem required specialized surgery that couldn't be done in West Plains, the doctor told him. He would have to be transported to a bigger hospital that had more advanced facilities. "The poor ER nurse told us that Ron was probably the sickest person in the hospital right then, but they couldn't send him to the ICU because all the beds there were full of covid patients," Dian said.
The ER staff "started looking for a hospital to send him to," Dian said. She expected them to say Ron would be going to Springfield, or maybe to St. Louis. But hours passed, and there was no word about where he would be sent. All the closest hospitals had no ICU beds for patients like Ron because they were maxed out with covid cases.
Finally, sometime around midnight, a hospital was found that had an available ICU bed. It was in Denver, Colorado.
"I thought, 'This can't be real! It can't be happening!'" Dian said.
The Denver hospital required two negative covid tests before they would admit Ron. He had tested negative on the test completed at the doctor’s office. While the second test was done in the ER, the hospital staff worked to secure a fixed-wing emergency-medical aircraft and crew. They found one in Arkansas – but a storm there delayed the incoming flight by three hours.
Finally, the plane arrived at West Plains Regional Airport, and an ambulance and crew came to take Ron to it.
"The nurse had managed, off and on, to get Ron to the point where he could take pain meds. He probably thought he was going to St. Louis, and we didn't tell him he was going to Denver because we didn't want him to stress even more," Dian said.
When they got him strapped into the gurney, they said, "Are you ready to go for a plane ride?"
"You bet!" Ron replied, and he gave the team a thumbs-up.
"He liked airplanes, loved flying after all his years working for the airline," Dian said. "I told him, 'Don't you give up! You keep fighting!' I wasn't sure he understood because he just repeated it back to me: 'Don't give up. Keep fighting.'"
And then, around 3 a.m., he was on his way to Denver.
'Where is he?'
Two of Dian and Ron's three sons were at the hospital with them. Brad Luna and wife Marian live in South Fork. Aaron and his wife, Patty, live in Farmington but had been in Dora celebrating their anniversary at River of Life Farms when Ron was hospitalized, and they had rushed to West Plains when Dian called them earlier that day. The Lunas' third son, Dwight, and his wife Crystal, live in St. Peter’s, near St. Louis.
The family quickly made plans. While they had waited in the ER, Aaron had booked airline tickets for them to fly from St. Louis to Denver later that Saturday, and he’d rented a car there. Bradley and his wife, Marian, would stay in South Fork to work at their jobs and to tend the Lunas' dogs and take care of things there. Dian would travel with Aaron and Patty to St. Louis, stopping over at their home in Farmington to make quick arrangements there before meeting up with Dwight for the flight to Denver.
A couple of hours into their grim trip, they stopped at a convenience store for fuel and an early breakfast at a McDonald's.
"We were sitting there, and Aaron's wife, Patty, said, 'We need a place to stay in Denver. We'll need to take turns staying with Ron and going somewhere to sleep,'" Dian recalled.
Patty called the Denver hospital to ask if it had a facility where families could stay, or if they could recommend a nearby hotel.
"The hospital person asked who the patient was, and then they said, 'He didn't make it.’” They were told there was a medical emergency, and he didn't ever get here,'"
When Patty asked where Ron was, the hospital staffer told her, "We don't know. You'll have to contact the originating hospital."
But the hospital in West Plains didn't know either. Staff there hadn't heard about the change in plans. "I'll make some calls and then call you back," the West Plains’ hospital staff member said. They waited, but the callback didn’t come.
By then, they were back in their car outside the convenience store, wondering what to do. They called Dwight to let him know they might not be coming to St. Louis, or that they might need to fly somewhere else.
Then they waited – and worried.
In a few minutes, Dwight called back. He had used a flight-tracking app to search for a plane that left West Plains at 3 a.m. headed for Denver. No surprise, there was only one.
"Dad's in Great Bend, Kansas," Dwight said.
"Why? What happened?" Dian asked, completely bewildered.
"He didn't make it, Mom. He passed away," Dwight said.
When he had seen that the plane had landed in Great Bend, Dwight and Crystal started calling hospitals in that area, one after another, asking if his dad was there. Finally, they had connected with an ER doctor who told them what happened.
"He coded in flight, and they had to land," Dwight said. "They took him to a hospital and worked on him 35 minutes but couldn't bring him back."
Dian was too shocked to believe what she was hearing. But then she took a breath and asked, "Where is he now?"
"He's in a funeral home in Great Bend, Kansas, Mom," Dwight said.
Stunned, Dian and her family struggled to grasp this tragic news.
Dwight had already checked and knew there were no flights to Great Bend. Should they drive there? What should they do?
Their minds in a whirlwind, the heartbroken family members tried to absorb what had happened. Then, a few minutes later, Dwight called back.
"He had thought to call Gene Britt at Clinkingbeard Funeral Home in Gainesville," Dian said. "And, oh, that man was such a blessing. Everything went wrong until we got ahold of Gene Britt, and after that, everything was taken care of. God bless that man."
Gene told them that, of course, the family could go to Great Bend and make arrangements there. "But he said, 'If you want us to go get him, we can do that, and we can have him here by around 3 a.m. Sunday.'” Dian said, adding, “And he did!"
Dian says she can't thank Gene Britt enough for the help he gave them. "I prayed, 'Father, thank you for working through him to help us,'" she said.
By 11 a.m. Sunday, Ron's body was ready at Clinkingbeard, where the family gathered for the first viewing. Following Ron’s wishes that he and Dian had discussed many times, no funeral service was planned, but a closed-casket visitation was held for family and friends on Friday evening, Aug. 20. A graveside service followed Saturday morning in Gainesville Cemetery, where an Army honor guard rendered military honors.
Remembering how Ron had enjoyed watching movies while eating popcorn and sitting in his recliner with his two dogs, Pooh Bear and Krickit, the family put together a slide show of family photos to present during the visitation – and served Cokes and popcorn in movie-theater boxes to those who gathered at the funeral home to watch it.
‘Please don’t forget!’
Six weeks or so after Ron's death, Dian noticed on her October calendar that he had an appointment with their family doctor. Instead of canceling the appointment, she decided to go to the appointment herself to speak with his doctor.
She laid out the story of what had happened: how Ron had come to the doctor for stomach pain but had been covid tested and then sent home without the doctor ever seeing him. "I believe I would still have my husband if you had examined him," she said. "I'm a Christian, and I have to forgive you. Your responsibility in this you'll have to handle with God yourself. But I blame you for Ron's death."
The doctor apologized and told Dian, "I will try to do better."
She gave him a copy of the funeral leaflet with Ron's photo on it with "Please don't forget" written on the front.
In sharing this story, Dian asks others to remember also. She wants us all to remember to speak up when something doesn't feel quite right and to ask questions when answers aren't clear.
Now, four months after Ron's death, paperwork and bills mingle with the grief of her loss.
In addition to Medicare, Ron had a supplemental insurance plan as well as veterans benefits, and so far, all the costs have been covered. Still, to see the cost of some of the components of their ordeal is breathtaking. For example, one of the first bills that came in was for the "survival flight" that headed to Denver but landed instead in Great Bend, Kansas. "That bill alone was $99,765," Dian said.
Looking back on the many experiences she and Ron shared, Dian says, “God brought us through it all, and there were certainly many good times too in our years together. I don’t know how I can ever get used to living without Ron after 54 years of being by his side, but God has a plan.”