When the call came, Dimitri Georgiadis would have exactly four hours to hug his two sons, zip up his bag and motor 253 miles from Syracuse to Philadelphia.
If he wasted even 15 minutes, the donated lung would be gone.
Word spread quickly through St. Sophias Greek Orthodox Church community. Does anyone know a pilot?
Ted Limpert immediately said yes. Limpert is a Syracuse city court judge, handling every kind of charge from midnight mishaps to human trafficking.
Before that, he was a part-time fighter pilot one of the first to scramble into action when the planes hit the World Trade Center.
Hes flown 2,200 hours in an F-16 and 750 hours in the A-10 Warthog as a member of the 174th Air National Guard fighter wing.
It was Limpert who flew a jet over Clinton Square, cracking the silence on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
He has retired from the military, but he still owns an airplane, parked at a small airport in Cortland.
This was the plan: Limpert would collect Georgiadis and his wife Eleni, drive to his plane, fly about an hour to the North Philadelphia airport. They would get a car, even if it meant calling an ambulance, and drive through Philadelphia traffic to Temple University Hospital, where a donated lung would be waiting to replace the ones threatening Georgiadis life.
It would just be another mission, he thought.
We called it TOT, time over target, Limpert said. You can be early, but you cant be late.
Georgiadis, 55, was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2006. As he got older, the disease grew more and more aggressive. He worked 18 years at Di Lauros Bakery in Syracuse. Then he went to work in the maintenance department, plowing snow and fixing faucets, for the Onondaga County Parks Department.
Georgiadis went on oxygen and disability. He moved up the list for a lung transplant. It would be done at Temple University Hospital, where he was being treated.
He was planning to drive himself to the hospital. Doctors said the call could come in the middle of the night, when accidents are most likely to claim the lives of donors.
It would be a stretch for a man on oxygen and in shock to make it over the foggy hills of Pennsylvania, through Philadelphia traffic and to the hospital in time.
Eleni Georgiadis started making phone calls.
All summer, I was calling different pilots, she said. Everybody we called, they said they couldnt guarantee me. They said well put you on the list, but we cant guarantee.
Even when she offered to pay, there was no guarantee, she said.
Then, a friend from church asked a friend of Limperts for help. The families were strangers.
He said Absolutely, Eleni Georgiadis said.
For two months, Limpert kept the car gassed up. He constantly checked weather conditions. He carried his phone everywhere, to the bench and to bed.
If he left town, he texted Eleni Georgiadis.
When hed come back, hed say Green Light. Your pilot is here. Ready for call, she said.
On Monday, Nov. 18, Limpert checked the weather one more time before heading for bed. It didnt look good.
At about 9 p.m., the call came.
He had not packed an overnight bag, even though his wife told him to. She handed him a Red Bull and he was out the door.
There was too much fog, they would have to drive to Philadelphia.
Limpert typed the hospitals address into his GPS app. It said the arrival time was 1:06 a.m.
That would be too late.
Limpert, a judge, declined to put a number on his speed down I-81, through Scranton and onto I-76.
I was proceeding with traffic, he said, laughing.
But there was no traffic, he said.
Limpert had thought to consult with police officer friends in advance and he was ready to call in the state police for an escort, if necessary.
In the two months leading up to the call, Limpert got to know the Georgiadises. He invited the couple to the Cortland Airport to introduce them to his airplane.
They climbed into the four-seater Mooney, tried on the headsets, made sure they were up for a noisy and bumpy ride. Other times, they shared Sunday dinner, homemade baklava, calzones and stories. They talked about their Greek heritage and their children.
Heres what Limpert did not say:
He had his own type of transplant last year.
In January 2018, a doctor at the VA Medical Center noticed elevated protein levels during a routine blood check and referred him to an oncologist. The eventual diagnosis: Multiple myeloma.
Limpert did six months of chemotherapy with so few side effects, he kept it a secret from his children and colleagues. By July, he couldnt hide the treatment any longer. He needed a stem cell transplant.
Doctors at Upstate Medical University harvested 17 million cells, then pushed 5 million of them back into his body. He was in the hospital for two weeks. The rest are in the bank for future treatment.
On the late night drive to Philadelphia, Limpert thought about his own illness, the way he relied on others to pull him through.
In the car, he encouraged the couple to focus on the 10-to-12-hour surgery they faced.
I didnt tell them, Limpert said. I thought they needed to focus on their own health issues.
The GPS sent the three on a ride down the Schuylkill Expressway a highway that often functions more like a parking lot. Limpert took the risk.
We pulled in at 12:43 a.m., Limpert said. We still had 15 minutes to spare.
The lung patient, his wife and their fighter pilot took a selfie. The Georgiadises rushed into the hospital.
Limpert looked at the can of Red Bull unopened in his car. He decided to drive back to Syracuse.
Limpert arrived in his office for arraignments by 9 a.m. Every wall in his chamber has a photo or drawing of a fighter jet. There are commendations and photos from the seven times he was deployed to Southwest Asia, starting with Operation Desert Storm and ending with Operation Enduring Freedom.
This was pretty easy, he said.
Georgiadis surgery was a success.
So far, so good, he said in an interview Tuesday from the hospital. He will be in the hospital for at least two months. He expressed a tearful thank you to the donor, whose identity is not known. They will write a letter to the donors family to see if they want to connect and share their stories.
In the past week, they have stayed in constant touch with Limpert, who they now consider family.
He took a huge burden off our shoulder, Dimitri Georgiadis said. The biggest one ever.
In Greek, Theodore means The Gift of God, Eleni Georgiadis said.
We call Ted our angel, she said.
Contact the author: Michelle Breidenbach | firstname.lastname@example.org | 315-470-3186.
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