He Loved Life, But Air Flight Nurse Couldn't Defeat Coronavirus

D'Ann Lawrence White

TAMPA, FL — Anyone remotely acquainted with Steven Neher would describe him as "full of life," said his aunt, Elizabeth Neher Alesafar.

Alesafar said the family wasn't surprised when Neher decided to become a nurse practitioner. Neher, 49, was passionate about helping people.

But he also liked challenges.

Rather than choosing a hospital or clinic environment, Neher spent the bulk of his career caring for patients 1,500 feet in the air as a flight nurse.

Most recently, he chose to care for patients in the unpredictable and often tough environment of the Hillsborough County Jail on Falkenburg Road in Tampa.

After obtaining both a bachelor's and master's degree in nursing science and EMT certification, Neher served as a flight nurse with the UCHealth helicopter medical care transit team in Colorado.

He left the frigid Colorado climate to relocate to the balmy Sunshine State where he worked with the Orlando Health Air Care Team for nearly 11 years, serving as acting clinical educator as well as a flight nurse and paramedic. That was followed by four years on the flight transplant team at Tampa General Hospital.

Neher was serving as nurse practitioner and clinic manager for NaphCare, a national worksite health and wellness company, which provides medical services to the Hillsborough County jail system, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March.

Friends say Neher wasn't especially fearful about contracting the virus. After all, he was young, healthy and active.

His aunt emphasized, however, that he took coronavirus protocols seriously.

“He followed all the recommended precautions, such as wearing a mask in public and maintaining social distancing,” she said. “And he limited his social activities to outdoor outings with a few close friends and family.”

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, his love of life was evident in the photos on his Facebook page showing him sailing, boating, taking cruises, climbing Pike’s Peak.

In nearly all the photos, he's accompanied by close friends, relatives and co-workers.

“He was loved by all who knew him,” said Alesafar.

Among them was Nikole Good, executive director Air & Surface Transport Nurses Association. She said his sense of humor and upbeat attitude naturally drew people to Neher.

As if nursing people back to health wasn't altruistic enough, Neher also volunteered for a number of charities including WEDU Public Media, the Junior League of Tampa Holiday Gift Market, the Pink Moscato for Breast Cancer Awareness and, his personal pet project, Dachshund Adoption and Education. Additionally, he was the former president of the Air & Surface Transport Nurses Association.

That all changed on Nov. 25 when Neher tested positive for the coronavirus.

"We believe he contracted COVID at his job (at the Hillsborough County Jail)," said Alesafar."What began as a feeling of discomfort and general body aches continued to the no taste or smell symptoms, then headaches and fever."

Six days later, Neher began having difficulty breathing. Suddenly, the guy who rarely stood still could no longer walk down the stairs without getting winded.

By December, it was obvious that Neher was in trouble. His symptoms fluctuated from fevers and a burning sensation to chills and what felt like pins pricking the skin all over his body.

On Dec. 5, as Neher's blood oxygen level fell below 87 percent (95 to 100 percent is considered normal), the longtime nurse practitioner became the patient.

He was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was placed in intensive care. COVID pneumonia soon turned into acute respiratory distress syndrome.

His friends and family were hopeful when he was chosen for an experimental trial using the drug Aviptadil. But their optimism was short-lived.

His oxygen levels dropped again and, on Dec. 13, he was fitted with a full breathing mask. Two days later, he was put on a ventilator and placed in a RotoProne life support bed.

"There are not many of these beds available, so we were encouraged that he was given one," said Alesafar.

On Dec. 17, at a time when Neher would normally gather with friends and family for the holidays, he was placed on the ECMO life support machine, a machine that takes over the functions of the lungs, heart or both when the patient's other support options appear to be failing.

It was the last hope of saving Neher's life. New data from Columbia University and other ECMO centers around the world have shown that more than 60 percent of severe COVID-19 patients who received ECMO survived.

Confident that her nephew would recover and return home to a pile of past-due bills and mortgage payments after his time in the hospital, Alesafar launched a GoFundMe campaign for her nephew. She didn't want him to have to worry about bills.

"When Steven is able to be off these life support measures, he will most likely need physical, respiratory and occupational therapy to regain his full strength and mobility to return to work," said Alesafar with unflagging optimism when she launched the fundraiser.

Her nephew's friends and co-workers pulled out all stops, raising more than $21,000 in just 19 days.

But Neher never got the chance to go home again.

On Dec. 29, Alesafar announced that her beloved Neher had died.

"It is with my deepest sorrow to share that Steven lost the battle early this morning," Alesafar said. "I pray that you will keep the beautiful memories of him in your heart and cherish all the joyous times you had with him. Thank you for all of the support, prayers and love that have been sent for Steven."

Instead of using the funds to support Neher's recovery, Alesafar said the funds from the GoFundMe campaign will pay his accumulated “life expenses” as well as his “after-life” expenses.

Friends and co-workers were shocked to hear the news.

"We are devastated,” Good said, who said Neher was both a mentor and a friend. "Steven was an incredible person, passionate about caring for his patients, he was an icon in the transport industry and an amazing leader of this association. He paved the way for the future success of ASTNA and his contributions and leadership in the transport industry and ASTNA will never be forgotten.

"This is inconceivable. What an immense legacy," said Dr. Bill Hinckley, Neher's friend and medical director of University of Cincinnati Health Air Care. "My deepest prayers for strength and peace to Steven's family and friends. Having sat beside him in many CCTM (Critical Care Transport Medicine) and HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Services] meetings over the years, my recollection is that he was always the best-dressed, most-prepared and most professional person in the room. Please honor Steven's memory by remaining absolutely rigorous with our masking/social distancing/handwashing, and get vaccinated ASAP."

"Such a devastating loss for our critical care transport community," said Dr. P.S. Martin, Neher's friend and associate medical director for HealthNet Aeromedical Services. "We lost an amazing leader and friend."

Martin shared a message Neher sent to his friends via Facebook shortly before his death. It included a cloudy X-ray showing Neher's quickly deteriorating lungs.

"I share this picture, as Steven did, to impress upon you that he was only 49 years old and had no significant prior medical problems," Martin said. "Those with medical training will note the severity of the appearance of his chest X-ray, and those of us who knew Steven are able to sense the concern and fear in his accompanying words." (Neher accompanied the photo of the X-ray with a description of his rapidly progressing symptoms and the treatment he was undergoing).

"Yes, most people will be able to survive COVID, but for others, such as Steven, it is a death sentence or will leave them with a myriad of chronic debilitating conditions," said Martin. "This is oh, so real, painfully so. Please wear your masks, socially distance, wash your hands and get vaccinated at your earliest opportunity. So much needless loss, so many wonderful people, like Steven Neher, gone. The loss to our society in incalculable."

GoFundMe is a Patch promotional partner.

TAMPA, FL — Anyone remotely acquainted with Steven Neher would describe him as "full of life," said his aunt, Elizabeth Neher Alesafar.

Alesafar said the family wasn't surprised when Neher decided to become a nurse practitioner. Neher, 49, was passionate about helping people.

But he also liked challenges.

Rather than choosing a hospital or clinic environment, Neher spent the bulk of his career caring for patients 1,500 feet in the air as a flight nurse.

Most recently, he chose to care for patients in the unpredictable and frequently tough environment of the Hillsborough County Jail on Falkenburg Road in Tampa.

After obtaining both a bachelor's and master's degree in nursing science and EMT certification, Neher served as a flight nurse with the UCHealth helicopter medical care transit team in Colorado.

He left the frigid Colorado climate to relocate to the balmy Sunshine State where he worked with the Orlando Health Air Care Team for nearly 11 years, serving as acting clinical educator as well as a flight nurse and paramedic. That was followed by four years on the flight transplant team at Tampa General Hospital.

Neher was serving as nurse practitioner and clinic manager for NaphCare, a national worksite health and wellness company, which provides medical services to the Hillsborough County jail system, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March.

Friends say Neher wasn't especially fearful about contracting the virus. After all, he was young, healthy and active.

His aunt emphasized, however, that he took the coronavirus seriously.

“He followed all the recommended precautions, such as wearing a mask in public and maintaining social distancing,” she said. “And he limited his social activities to outdoor outings with a few close friends and family.”

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, his love of life was evident in the photos on his Facebook page showing him sailing, boating, taking cruises, climbing Pike’s Peak.

In nearly all the photos, he's accompanied by close friends, relatives and co-workers.

“He was loved by all who knew him,” said Alesafar.

Among them is Nikole Good, executive director Air & Surface Transport Nurses Association. She called Neher both a friend and mentor, said his sense of humor and upbeat attitude naturally drew people to him.

As if nursing people back to health wasn't altruistic enough, Neher also volunteered for a number of charities including WEDU Public Media, the Junior League of Tampa Holiday Gift Market, the Pink Moscato for Breast Cancer Awareness and, his personal pet project, Dachshund Adoption and Education. Additionally, he was the former president of the Air & Surface Transport Nurses Association.

That all changed on Nov. 25 when Neher tested positive for the coronavirus.

"We believe he contracted COVID at his job (at the Hillsborough County Jail)," said Alesafar."What began as a feeling of discomfort and general body aches continued to the no taste or smell symptoms, then headaches and fever."

Six days later, Neher began having difficulty breathing. Suddenly, the guy who rarely stood still could no longer walk down-stairs without getting winded.

By December, it was obvious that Neher was in trouble. His symptoms fluctuated from fevers and a burning sensation to chills and what felt like pins pricking the skin all over his body.

On Dec. 5, as Neher's blood oxygen level fell below 87 percent (95 to 100 percent is considered normal), the longtime nurse practitioner became the patient. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was placed in intensive care. COVID pneumonia soon turned into acute respiratory distress syndrome.

His friends and family were hopeful when he was chosen for an experimental trial using the drug Aviptadil. But their optimism was short-lived.

His oxygen levels dropped again and, on Dec. 13, he was fitted with a full breathing mask. Two days later, he was put on a ventilator and placed in a RotoProne life support bed.

"There are not many of these beds available, so we were encouraged that he was given one," said Alesafar.

On Dec. 17, a time Neher would normally gather with friends at Christmas parties and do some last-minute gift shopping, he was placed on the ECMO life support machine, a machine that takes over the functions of the lungs, heart or both when the patient's other support options appear to be failing.

It was the last hope of saving Neher's life. New data from Columbia University and other ECMO centers around the world have shown that more than 60 percent of severe COVID-19 patients who received ECMO survived.

Confident that her nephew would recover and return home to a slew of mortgage and car payments, utility bills and other expenses that had piled up during his time in the hospital, Alesafar launched a GoFundMe campaign for her nephew.

"When Steven is able to be off these life support measures, he will most likely need physical, respiratory and occupational therapy to regain his full strength and mobility to return to work," said Alesafar with unflagging optimism as she launched the fundraiser.

Her nephew's friends and co-workers pulled out all stops, raising more than $21,000 in just 19 days.

But Neher never got the chance to go home again.

On Dec. 29, Alesafar announced to his friends and co-workers that Neher had died.

"It is with my deepest sorrow to share that Steven lost the battle early this morning," Alesafar said. "I pray that you will keep the beautiful memories of him in your heart and cherish all the joyous times you had with him. Thank you for all of the support, prayers and love that have been sent for Steven."

Instead of using the funds to support Neher's recovery, Alesafar said the funds from the GoFundMe campaign will go to continue paying his accumulated “life expenses” as well as his “after-life” expenses.

Friends and co-workers said they were shocked to hear the news.

"We are devastated,” Good said, who said Neher was both a mentor and a friend. "Steven was an incredible person, passionate about caring for his patients, he was an icon in the transport industry and an amazing leader of this association. He paved the way for the future success of ASTNA and his contributions and leadership in the transport industry and ASTNA will never be forgotten.

"This is inconceivable. What an immense legacy," said Dr. Bill Hinckley, Neher's friend and medical director of University of Cincinnati Health Air Care. "My deepest prayers for strength and peace to Steven's family and friends. Having sat beside him in many CCTM (Critical Care Transport Medicine) and HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Services] meetings over the years, my recollection is that he was always the best-dressed, most-prepared and most professional person in the room. Please honor Steven's memory by remaining absolutely rigorous with our masking/social distancing/handwashing, and get vaccinated ASAP."

"Such a devastating loss for our critical care transport community," said Dr. P.S. Martin, Neher's friend and associate medical director for HealthNet Aeromedical Services. "We lost an amazing leader and friend."

Martin shared a message Neher sent to his friends via Facebook shortly before his death. It included a cloudy X-ray showing Neher's quickly deteriorating lungs.

"I share this picture, as Steven did, to impress upon you that he was only 49 years old and had no significant prior medical problems," Martin said. "Those with medical training will note the severity of the appearance of his chest X-ray, and those of us who knew Steven are able to sense the concern and fear in his accompanying words." (Neher accompanied the photo of the X-ray with a description of his rapidly progressing symptoms and the treatment he was undergoing).

"Yes, most people will be able to survive COVID, but for others, such as Steven, it is a death sentence or will leave them with a myriad of chronic debilitating conditions," said Martin. "This is oh, so real, painfully so. Please wear your masks, socially distance, wash your hands and get vaccinated at your earliest opportunity. So much needless loss, so many wonderful people, like Steven Neher, gone. The loss to our society in incalculable."

GoFundMe is a Patch promotional partner.

Anyone remotely acquainted with Steven Neher would describe him as "full of life," said his aunt, Elizabeth Neher Alesafar.

Alesafar said the family wasn't surprised when Neher decided to become a nurse practitioner. Neher, 49, liked helping people.

But he also liked challenges.

Rather than choosing a hospital or clinic environment, Neher spent the bulk of his career caring for patients 1,500 feet in the air as a flight nurse.

Most recently, he chose to care for patients in the unpredictable and frequently tough environment of the Hillsborough County Jail on Falkenburg Road in Tampa.

After obtaining both a bachelor's and master's degree in nursing science and EMT certification, Neher served as a flight nurse with the UCHealth helicopter medical care transit team in Colorado.

He left the frigid Colorado clime to relocate to the balmy Sunshine State where he worked with the Orlando Health Air Care Team for nearly 11 years, serving as acting clinical educator as well as a flight nurse and paramedic. That was followed by four years on the flight transplant team at Tampa General Hospital.

Neher was serving as nurse practitioner and clinic manager for Take Care Health Systems, a national worksite health and wellness company, which provides medical services to the Hillsborough County jail system, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March.

Friends say Neher wasn't especially concerned about contracting the virus. After all, he was young, healthy and active.

His Facebook page is filled with photos showing him sailing, boating, taking a Royal Caribbean cruise, climbing Pike's Peak, even posing with a camel. In nearly all the photos, he's accompanied by a crowd of close friends, relatives and co-workers.

As if nursing people back to health wasn't altruistic enough, Neher also was former president of the Air & Surface Transport Nurses Association, and volunteered for a number of charities including WEDU Public Media, the Junior League of Tampa Holiday Gift Market, the Pink Moscato for Breast Cancer Awareness and, his personal pet project, Dachshund Adoption and Education.

That all changed on Nov. 25 when Neher tested positive for the coronavirus.

"We believe he contracted COVID at his job (at the Hillsborough County Jail)," said Alesafar."What began as a feeling of discomfort and general body aches continued to the no taste or smell symptoms, then headaches and fever."

Six days later, Neher began having difficulty breathing. Suddenly, the guy who rarely stood still could no longer walk down stairs without getting winded.

By December, it was obvious that Neher was in trouble. His symptoms fluctuated from fevers and a burning sensation to chills and what felt like pins pricking the skin all over his body.

On Dec. 5, as Neher's blood oxygen level fell below 87 percent (95 to 100 percent is considered normal), the longtime nurse practitioner became the patient. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was placed in intensive care. Pneumonia soon turned into acute respiratory distress syndrome.

His friends and family were hopeful when he was chosen for an experimental trial using the drug Aviptadil. But their optimism was short-lived.

His oxygen levels dropped again and, on Dec. 13, he was fitted with a full breathing mask. Two days later, he was put on a ventilator and placed in a RotoProne life support bed.

"There are not many of these beds available, so we were encouraged that he was given one," said Alesafar.

On Dec. 17, a time Neher would normally gather with friends at Christmas parties and do some last-minute gift shopping, he was placed on the ECMO life support machine, a machine that takes over the functions of the lungs, heart or both when the patient's other support options appear to be failing.

It was the last hope of saving Neher's life. New data from Columbia University and other ECMO centers around the world have shown that more than 60 percent of severe COVID-19 patients who received ECMO survived.

Confident that her nephew would recover and return home to a slew of mortgage and car payments, utility bills and other expenses that had piled up during his time in the hospital, Alesafar launched a GoFundMe campaign for her nephew.

"When Steven is able to be off these life support measures, he will most likely need physical, respiratory and occupational therapy to regain his full strength and mobility to return to work," said Alesafar with unflagging optimism as she launched the fundraiser.

Her nephew's friends and co-workers pulled out all stops, raising more than $21,000 in just 19 days.

But Neher never got the chance to go home again

On Dec. 29, Alesafar announced to his friends and co-workers that Neher had died.

"It is with my deepest sorrow to share that Steven lost the battle early this morning," Alesafar said. "I pray that you will keep the beautiful memories of him in your heart and cherish all the joyous times you had with him. Thank you for all of the support, prayers and love that have been sent for Steven."

Instead of using the funds to support Neher's recovery, Alesafar said the funds from the GoFundMe campaign will go to his funeral expenses.

Friends and co-workers said they were shocked to hear the news.

"We are devastated,” Good said. "Steven was an incredible person, passionate about caring for his patients, he was an icon in the transport industry and an amazing leader of this association. He paved the way for the future success of ASTNA, and his contributions and leadership in the transport industry and ASTNA will never be forgotten."

"This is inconceivable. What an immense legacy," said Dr. Bill Hinckley, Neher's friend and medical director of University of Cincinnati Health Air Care. "My deepest prayers for strength and peace to Steven's family and friends. Having sat beside him in many CCTM (Critical Care Transport Medicine) and HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Services] meetings over the years, my recollection is that he was always the best-dressed, most-prepared and most professional person in the room. Please honor Steven's memory by remaining absolutely rigorous with our masking/social distancing/handwashing, and get vaccinated ASAP."

"Such a devastating loss for our critical care transport community," said Dr. P.S. Martin, Neher's friend and associate medical director for HealthNet Aeromedical Services. "We lost an amazing leader and friend."

Martin shared a message Neher sent to his friends via Facebook shortly before his death. It included a cloudy X-ray showing Neher's quickly deteriorating lungs.

"I share this picture, as Steven did, to impress upon you that he was only 49 years old and had no significant prior medical problems," Martin said. "Those with medical training will note the severity of the appearance of his chest X-ray, and those of us who knew Steven are able to sense the concern and fear in his accompanying words." (Neher accompanied the photo of the X-ray with a description of his rapidly progressing symptoms and the treatment he was undergoing).

"Yes, most people will be able to survive COVID, but for others, such as Steven, it is a death sentence or will leave them with a myriad of chronic debilitating conditions," said Martin. "This is oh, so real, painfully so. Please wear your masks, socially distance, wash your hands and get vaccinated at your earliest opportunity. So much needless loss, so many wonderful people, like Steven Neher, gone. The loss to our society in incalculable."

GoFundMe is a Patch promotional partner.

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This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch