The St. Louis RV Park has become a haven for RVers with major medical problems “” just ask transplant recipient John Hall.
By Gini and Dan McKain
For the past 19 years, George and Lynn Hudson and Jack and Lois Abernathy, F131334, have co-owned the St. Louis RV Park, C3163. This 100-site urban facility, situated in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, differs from most RV parks in two distinct ways. First, it is one of very few RV parks located in the heart of a major American city. Second, it has become known throughout the RV industry and medical community as the “compassionate campground.”
The park received this unique moniker in part because of its proximity to the vast and world-renowned St. Louis medical complex. More than a few organ transplant recipients and their families have stayed in their motorhomes at the park before, during, and after the surgeries.
There is plenty for the families to do while their loved one is undergoing and recovering from the lifesaving procedures. The park is located within a few minutes of all major downtown activities, including Busch Stadium, home of Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals; the art museum; the history museum; the St. Louis Zoo; the City Museum; and the famed St. Louis Botanical Gardens. In the fall, it’s not unusual for some families of St. Louis Rams football players to stay in their large RVs at the park.
The St. Louis RV Park is normally open from March until November. Families feel very safe there. The perimeter of the facility is surrounded by a tall security fence hidden in a line of trees and shrubs. The owners live on the grounds, and 24-hour-a-day private security is provided in season. A St. Louis city police station is right across the street with squad cars coming and going all hours of the day and night.
The park has paved asphalt parking sites; a swimming pool; a modern shower and clean rest room building; and a camp store.
John and Dee Hall, F231057, from Decatur, Illinois, are typical of the many repeat motorhomers who have come to know the St. Louis RV Park as the compassionate campground following a very difficult period in their lives. In August 1997 John received a heart and double-lung transplant. The surgery was performed at the St. Louis University Hospital.
John initially was diagnosed with congestive heart failure by a doctor in his hometown. The treatment prescribed by the doctor was a diuretic and more exercise. But soon, John began experiencing other problems.
“When my ankles got about as round as six-inch stovepipes, [my doctor] sent me to a congestive heart failure specialist in another town,” John recalled. “I then found out that, basically, what I had was full pulmonary failure, which had caused the congestive heart failure.”
Unfortunately, doctors at his home heart program said they could do little to treat his condition, because his lungs had deteriorated too far. His other option was to travel to St. Louis University Hospital. There he was informed that he probably was too old for a transplant, but that he would be put on the transplant list anyway. They did, however, caution him not to get too excited about the prospects of ever receiving a transplant. Typically, it took three to four years for a recipient’s name to reach the top of the list and a match to be found and, at best, doctors believed that he had only a year or two to live. With that, John took what little hope he had from the assessment and tried to stay as active as possible and keep his diet under control.
In December 1995, medical authorities told him to put his affairs in order, because he had less than a year to live. Looking out his patio door as a snowstorm began, he made up his mind that if he had anything to do with it, he wasn’t going to die in Decatur in a snowstorm.
Knowing nothing whatsoever about motorhomes, but always having wanted to travel in one, John went to see a friend who owned an RV dealership and purchased a preowned Tiffin Allegro. John and Dee headed south for the winter, carrying about 100 pounds of liquid oxygen on board, as well as a list of pulmonary specialists and cardiologists who could be consulted in towns along the way in case of emergencies.
The Halls spent a week in Alabama in their motorhome and fell in love with life on the road. On their way back to Illinois, they stopped at a dealership to look at some new motorhomes. While there, they bought their second coach, a new 31-foot Allegro.
“One of the most important things about a serious illness like I had is to keep a positive attitude about whatever happens,” he said. “That attitude will help keep you alive as much as anything. So, we bought the brand-new Allegro on the basis that we would get our use from it when, and not if, I got the transplant.”
Fortunately, like John, Dee fell in love with the motorhome lifestyle. When doctors advised him not to drive due to his illness, she climbed into the pilot’s seat and learned how to drive the Allegro.
Another reason they liked the idea of traveling by motorhome was to avoid infection. “With any lung transplant, you have a compromised immune system,” John said. “Germs are your enemy. Motels are a very scary place for any transplant patient, because you never know who was in that room before you, or just how well it’s been cleaned. For instance, what’s in the carpeting? That’s the beauty of the motorhome; we know.”
Finally, the day came. It was a Thursday in August 1997 at about 5:00 p.m. The Halls were on their way out the door to enjoy a street festival in Blue Mound, Illinois, when the phone rang. John answered it. The person on the other end of the line asked if he was John Hall. “When I said yes, the voice continued with the astounding news: ‘Mr. Hall, this is the St. Louis University Hospital; we have some organs coming in for you.’
“I asked them to please repeat that, and they said they had a heart and two lungs on the way in with my name on them,” he recalled. “We drove immediately to the hospital, because they told us we had to be there within three hours.”
The couple arrived at the hospital at around 7:15 p.m. Once he was prepped, John was taken to the hospital’s operating room. The last thing he remembered was the surgeon saying, “Good night, John.”
John’s next recollection was a few hours after the successful eight-hour transplant surgery. For several days he remained in intensive care with a nurse in attendance 24 hours a day. Then he was moved to a regular hospital room and, as they say, the rest is history.
While John recovered, his wife stayed at the St. Louis RV Park when she wasn’t at the hospital. Although he had just undergone major transplant surgery, it took only a few days for him to start getting antsy, Dee said. “He loves to read, talk, and listen to music. I’d already taken him a compact CD player. I also happened to see a few back issues of Family Motor Coaching magazine, so I took them to him, too, hoping that they would occupy his mind for a while.
“He hadn’t even finished reading the first one when he was asking me to fill out the application for membership and call it in with a credit card,” she recalled. “We’ve been members ever since. It’s a great organization. Many of our friends have also joined.”
Ten days later John was discharged from the hospital. He went back to his wife, his Allegro motorhome, and the St. Louis RV Park.
Since then, John has recovered nicely and the couple has continued on their motorhoming journey. After a trip to Florida in 2003, they stopped at another dealership, where they bought a 35-foot Allegro Bay. Although John said that he’s not quite ready for a diesel coach yet, that probably will be the next step.
The Halls now spend four winter months in Fort Myers, Florida, and a month and a half in Minnesota in the summer. In addition, they make several shorter trips around the United States during the remainder of the year. “I really feel that my interest in and the excitement of motorhoming is what has kept me going,” John said. “It got me interested in something other than my poor health: surviving the transplant procedure.”
Of course, whenever the Halls return to St. Louis for John’s checkups, they never have to worry about finding a place to stay. “The St. Louis RV Park is like home,” he said. “I was here during the time that I was so sick, and George and Lynn are like our next-door neighbors rather than RV park owners. All of us in the RV community promote this park for other transplant people. Several have stayed here during the different times that we have been here, both before and after my transplant …. Most of us with medical problems know how to reach the park owners, even in winter, if we need to stay here.”
The owners of the St. Louis RV Park understand how important it is to provide their guests with a calm, welcoming environment, especially those with medical problems, and do whatever they can to make the experience as comfortable as possible, even if it is in the middle of winter.
“Many of our guests come and stay with us for critical lifesaving organ transplant operations,” said Lynn Hudson. “More than a few families stay with us in their motor coaches before, during, and after the procedures. It is when these times overlap our normal operating months that we might open earlier or extend the closing times. After all, we are considered to be a very compassionate urban campground.”
St. Louis RV Park, 900 N. Jefferson, St. Louis, MO 63106; (800) 878-3330, (314) 241-3330.