Nearly a dozen members of the Strike Fighter Squadron 192 (VFA-192) – also known as “The World Famous Golden Dragons” – visited Children’s Hospital, lighting up patients’ faces with tales of their military experiences and words of encouragement while handing out distinctive hats, patches and autographed pictures of their high-tech F-18 aircraft.
VFA-192 is a United States Navy F/A-18C Hornet fighter squadron stationed at Naval Air Station Lemoore.
“We’re very excited and so thankful for this opportunity,” said Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi, executive officer, VFA-192, who along with other members of his squadron has had a child treated at Children’s. “We’ve really enjoyed meeting and talking with the kids. Each one of them is very special and very brave.”
During the May 11 afternoon event, the squadron interacted at bedside with about 35 individual children in Starship Craycroft, which provides inpatient care for those with potentially immunocompromised conditions such as cancer and other potentially immune deficiency diseases. The squadron shared their passion for aviation, answered questions and showed personal interest in each patient.
“It was a great thing for them (VFA-192) to do – my son loved it,” said Rozanne Wille of Clovis as her 2-year-old, Hendrix, put on his new dark blue “Golden Dragons” hat. Hendrix was diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia in April. An inpatient at Children’s Hospital, the toddler is undergoing chemotherapy and is awaiting a bone marrow transplant.
“I asked them if they were on the bone marrow registry to be a potential bone marrow donor and some of them said they were,” continued Rozanne. “The ones who weren’t took information on how to register. They were so nice, they wanted to help.”
Bernacchi, whose callsign is “Little Guido,” and two of his other pilots, “C.J.” and “Scooter,” along with sailors who maintain their F-18s, also visited many other patients in the Child Life classroom. Several of the patients exclaimed “Wow!” and “Cool!” as the crew played a DVD of their F-18 taking off from and landing on the aircraft carrier, and demonstrated their night vision goggles, flight gear and helmets.
“We go everywhere together,” said Bernacchi as he introduced members of the team, dressed either in a pilot uniform or camouflage. “Without them (the sailors), the squadron wouldn’t be able to perform its mission. They provide the jets and keep us (the pilots) safe.”
Impressed with the amount of attention that Bernacchi and his team gave to the patients, Dr. Robert Kezirian, a pediatric emergency room physician at Children’s, said the squadron seemed to benefit from the visit as much as the children.
“We look at them as heroes yet they think of us as heroes too,” said Dr. Kezirian, who is also the University of California, San Francisco – Fresno Pediatric Program director. “There’s a mutual appreciation and respect of different skills miles apart. One thing is for sure: we’re all at our best when we work together. No man is an island. Through this type of outreach, we work together for the good of all of us and our children.”
“It was kind of funny, here these folks who fly a $70 million F-18 were amazed at our technology, like our finger-size blood pressure cuffs, miniature cardiac monitor pads and tiny intravenous catheters,” added Dr. Kezirian with a chuckle.
The squadron expressed their appreciation for Children’s Hospital by presenting an autographed picture of their F-18 aircraft to the Hospital.
"This event has made a profound impact on the World Famous Golden Dragon team,” said Bernacchi. “The kids inspired every one of us, and we feel truly grateful for the opportunity to meet these young heroes and their families. Children's Hospital provides incredible support to our community, and the staff's amazing skill and kindness has directly touched many VFA-192 families.”
“We are very pleased that the Golden Dragons came to visit Children’s Hospital,” said Dr. David Christensen, Children’s chief medical officer. “The visit meant a lot to the kids. We hope this is one of many events we do with the Lemoore base.”
Visit The World Famous Golden Dragons on their website for more information.