Many people go about doing good deeds in their families, neighborhoods, organizations and church congregations. “Utah Valley’s Everyday Heroes” celebrates these unsung community members and brings to light their quiet contributions.
Rob Oliverson boards his bus at 6:20 a.m. every morning. With a strobe light to make his vehicle more visible, chains on his tires and a bucket with emergency supplies in case he gets stuck, he starts up the mountain to pick up his students.
And despite the snow, slush, winds and storms that can knock out his two-way radio, he wouldn’t trade his route to anyone.
“I know I can handle it,” Oliverson said. “So I am glad I can take those kids to school, safely, every day.”
Oliverson is one of eight bus drivers in the Alpine School District who drive up to the Suncrest neighborhood in southern Draper, on Traverse Mountain. A van also goes up to the area onto roads that are too steep for buses.
The drivers are handpicked by the district to drive its toughest routes.
“They’re experienced drivers,” said Joe Hayes, the director of transportation for the Alpine School District. “Many of those drivers are also our trainers.”
The drive is considered a speciality route due to the dangerous weather that can occur in the winter.
“The conditions in that area change very quickly,” Hayes said.
He said the district puts a lot of trust in those drivers to make the call if the route is safe or not that day. If drivers can’t make it, schools will put out a call to parents.
It’s a tight-knit group. Since the drivers stay on the routes, they see the same students every year. One driver, Hayes said, even shows up early to shovel the sidewalks where the students line up.
The buses on the Suncrest routes are replaced every five years for safety.
For the drivers, they know that the vehicles can handle the routes and snow.
“I would much rather drive my bus in the snow than my own four-wheel drive truck,” Oliverson said. “They are heavier. They weigh 32,000 lbs. They drive well in the snow.”
Becky Leach’s special education bus even has four-wheel drive.
After driving the routes, she’s formed a special bond with the students she picks up.
“My concerns are always the kids,” Leach said. “We have that issue with the safety of driving in the weather, but I always worry about my little kids, and I don’t want them to be scared.”
Even in the worst conditions, or when they have to temporarily pull over to wait out a storm, the drivers stay calm, knowing that it will keep the students calm, too.
The drivers are trained on the mountain and have a group text where they discuss weather conditions.
The route still has its challenges. There’s cloud cover that creates fog in the area and rough winds. The bus drivers can also get up to the area before the plows do.
The weather can vary greatly. Oliverson said the top of the mountain can be clear while there’s snow at the bottom.
“The hardest part is never knowing what you are getting into when you start going up,” Oliverson said.
He’s stayed on the routes because of the students. After driving the same group of elementary students for four years, they’ll quiz him on how many siblings they have.
Leach said it isn’t that the Suncrest route drivers are better than the other drivers. It’s that they have the confidence to tackle the route.
“It is a particular person who can drive that mountain,” Leach said.
The canyons present their own challenges.
“Go slow,” said Gary Hubbs, a driver who drives the Birdseye route up Spanish Fork Canyon to Indianola for the Nebo School District. “You go as slow as you have to be to be safe.”
Hubbs drives 35 miles up the canyon in order to pick up 20 students. He drives 70 students, total.
On Thursday, a snowstorm made the drive tough.
“I never saw the road once during the whole entire trip,” he said.
But if the bus drops off the students are late, the schools understand. Hubbs said the focus is on keeping the students safe.
He’s has had trips where the wind is blowing and he’s only able to see two feet in front of him. During those conditions, he’s recruited students to help him try to spot the posts to check that they’re still on the road as he drives at 2 mph.
With a cattle ranch and his church in the area, Hubbs personally knows many of the students. It’s those connections that made him switch from being an activities driver to a regular route.
“I wanted to do it for a long time just because I know all the families,” he said.
They’ll tease him that he drives like an old farmer. Hubbs shoots back that he is.
But knowing that he has to stick to a schedule can make driving slow mentally tough.
“Being in a school bus, it is always OK to be late, but you can never be early,” he said.
Lana Hiskey, a spokeswoman for the Nebo School District, said Hubbs has received district awards and is known for being safe, courteous, reliable and for cheering on athletes at games.
“He really is the best of the best,” she said.
Hubbs said he wouldn’t be able to do it without the district’s team, which includes supervisors who will drive buses when there’s a shortage of drivers and mechanics who are always willing to help.
“None of us would ever be able to do it if we didn’t have the most amazing mechanics,” Hubbs said. “They take care of us better than you could ever imagine.”
A push-up. A pull-up. A jumping jack. To many, doing these exercises may seem simple, but to 18-year-old Terell Jensen, they mean one more breath toward independence.
On Nov. 24, Terell and his family were up near Strawberry Reservoir for their annual trip to get a Christmas tree when the accident happened.
“We were having lunch, and were just about to head out when our three sons, Trevor, Terell and TJ, decided to hook the sled up for a quick run before going home,” Kari Jensen said. “The next thing we knew, Trevor was coming down to get help for Terell, who would soon be life flighted to the Utah Valley Hospital.”
According to Kari Jensen, Terell hit a patch of icy snow and was thrown off the sled into a few smaller aspen trees and landed on a rock. While Terell never hit his head, he did break his C5, T5 and T6 vertebrae. The accident would leave him classified as a C5 quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down, which also put a lot of pressure on his lungs and diaphragm. To help him breathe, Terell would require the use of a ventilator and then a trachea breathing tube. This, according to Kari Jensen, has been one of the most challenging aspects of the injury repercussions.
“The use of the ventilator and trachea tube has been to help Terell heal,” Kari Jensen said. “His diaphragm needs to get stronger so he can use it to breathe instead of his neck, which he’s been doing with the trachea tube. Terell has to retrain his brain to breathe normally before the trachea can be removed.”
Rather than removing the tube altogether, Terell has to practice breathing with the use of a cap that is placed over where the tube is inserted. This is done over several hours each day, or as long as Terell is able to handle it, with the goal of being entirely off of it. Kari Jensen says that while it is exciting to watch her son move forward and heal, it is also very scary for him.
“When the tube is removed, it is very scary for Terell because his brain doesn’t remember how to breathe with his diaphragm,” she said. “It is hard for us to watch, so we as a family decided that we would do something to help motivate Terell to push through. And since we are a crazy, active family always doing fitness challenges, we decided to start the trachea challenge.”
The trachea challenge, according to Kari Jensen, is a fitness challenge where people do three exercises for every minute Terell is off the trachea tube.
“You can choose jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, burpees or pull-ups,” she said. “We capped the amount at 1000 so as not to kill anyone. You can do all of the exercises as push ups or mix and match, and you can do them throughout the day, as part of your workout or separately. The other day he only wore it for an hour, so we only had to do 180 exercises. Today he wore it for eight hours. He eventually has to wear it for 48 hours straight — night and day without breaks and no suctioning to have the trachea removed. They have to know his diaphragm, cough and lungs are strong enough to clear mucus and deliver oxygen.”
Kari Jensen said since the challenge began, she has heard of so many people taking it on, and says the response has been humbling. More importantly, she says the challenge has given Terell motivation.
“Terell has had his ups and downs for sure, and it has been so awesome to watch him have something to try for and look forward to,” Kari Jensen said. “When he hears about people doing the exercises for him, it helps him so much knowing others are doing something hard while he is doing something hard.”
In the past several months, Terell could choose to be bitter about his situation, but his mom says he’s chosen to approach things with an attitude of humility and kindness.
“The first song Terell asked to listen to after his accident, was ‘Humble and Kind’ by Tim McGraw, and that is what he has been ever since November 24, 2019,” Kari Jensen said. “He could have chosen to be ticked off at me, everyone and the world, but he is kinder than I ever would be. Don’t get me wrong, he is upset, sad, confused and frustrated, but he is humble and kind, with a great smile.”
It’s during the hard times when they look toward the future, Kari Jensen.
“It is hard not to focus on the trial we are experiencing right now, but we’ve decided that it’s not the trial that you get, but how you handle it from here on out that matters,” she said.”
And for right now, Terell is handling it with the help of friends, family and complete strangers doing one push-up, pull-up and jumping jack at a time, as they all work together toward a happy and healthful future.
To follow Terell’s journey, go to Kari Jensen’s Facebook page or follow Terell on Instagram @terellsmtn.
SALT LAKE CITY — Ann Lovell had never owned a passport before last year. Now, the 62-year-old teacher is a frequent flier, traveling every few months to Tijuana, Mexico, to buy medication for rheumatoid arthritis — with tickets paid for by the state of Utah’s public insurer.
Lovell is one of about 10 state workers participating in a year-old program to lower prescription drug costs by having public employees buy their medication in Mexico at a steep discount compared to U.S. prices. The program appears to be the first of its kind, and is a dramatic example of steps states are taking to alleviate the high cost of prescription drugs.
In one long, exhausting day, Lovell flies from Salt Lake City to San Diego. There, an escort picks her up and takes her across the border to a Tijuana hospital, where she gets a refill on her prescription. After that, she’s shuttled back to the airport and heads home.
Lovell had been paying $450 in co-pays every few months for her medication, though she said it would have increased to some $2,400 if she had not started traveling to Mexico. Without the program, she would not be able to afford the medicine she needs.
“This is the drug that keeps me functioning, working,” said Lovell, who works at an early-intervention program for deaf students that’s part of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind. “I think if I wasn’t on this drug ... I’d be on disability rather than living my normal life.”
The cost difference is so large that the state’s insurance program for public employees can pay for each patient’s flight, give them a $500-per-trip bonus and still save tens of thousands of dollars.
Other states have taken new approaches to addressing the high costs of prescription drugs. California is looking at launching its own generic-drug label. Louisiana has a Netflix-style program for hepatitis C drugs, where the state negotiated a deal to pay a flat fee rather than for each prescription.
Several states are looking at creating boards aimed at keeping prices affordable, and four have started what’s expected to be a lengthy process to begin importing drugs from Canada under a new Trump administration plan.
The Utah program was created under a 2018 state law dubbed “right to shop,” by Republican Rep. Norm Thurston. The Public Employees Health Program offers it only for people who use a drug on a list of about a dozen medications where the state can get significant savings. Of the 160,000 state and local public employees covered by the insurer, fewer than 400 are eligible, according to Managing Director Chet Loftis.
Officials have tracked the medications from the manufacturer to the pharmacy to the patient, to make sure people are getting the same drugs they would at home, he said. They contract with a specialty pharmacy that works with one of the region’s largest private hospital systems. A representative from a company, Provide Rx, escorts patients from the San Diego airport to Hospital Angeles in Tijuana and back across the border.
Lovell has a prescription from her doctor in Utah, and each time she travels to Mexico she sees a doctor at the hospital as well. She updates the doctor on her condition, gets her prescription, and takes it to the pharmacist, who gives her the medication.
Provide Rx also works with a dozen or so private companies, some of whom offer similar bonus programs to their staffers, said general manager Javier Ojeda.
Just over a year after the program began, the state has saved about $225,000, Loftis said.
Though the number of people participating is relatively small, the savings add up quickly. The annual U.S. list price for the drug Lovell takes, Enbrel, is over $62,000 per patient. With the Mexico program, after the cost of the flight and the bonus, the state still cuts its expenses in half.
“It makes sense for us to do this,” Loftis said.
Thurston had hoped more people would sign up, saving the state $1 million by now.
But officials are optimistic more people will sign on now that they see the program is working. They have expanded to offering flights to Canada, where there’s a clinic in the Vancouver airport and the travel costs are about the same.
While importation of prescription drugs is illegal because drugs sold in other countries haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. allows people to bring in a three-month supply for personal use.
There have been long been more informal trips across the border elsewhere; Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has taken bus trips with patients from border states into Canada to highlight the cost of prescription drugs. But the Utah program appears to be the only formal state program of its kind, said David Mitchell, a cancer patient and the founder of the advocacy group Patients For Affordable Drugs.
“It is unfortunate and, in fact, wrong that the citizens of this great country have to travel to other countries to get drugs they need at affordable prices,” he said.
Others say the “pharmaceutical tourism” approach has risks and doesn’t solve the issue of high prescription drug prices in the United States. Peter Maybarduk with the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen said people can come across unsafe medications in other countries, and it’s important not to undercut the importance of U.S. regulators.
“It is a Band-Aid for people who really need it,” he said. “We need reform of the system as whole.”
In most other countries, national health programs negotiate lower drug prices at large scale, and sometimes refuse to cover the most expensive ones. Meanwhile, patents generally run much longer in the U.S. than other countries, allowing for monopolies. Drug makers also often point to the high cost of creating a drug to bring to market.
Utah truck driver Jason Pierce has been grateful to find the drug Stelara, the only effective treatment for his psoriasis. It’s also expensive, so he and his wife, a Utah health department employee, started traveling to Mexico to get his shots.
Their insurance through her state job covers it completely, so the trips don’t save them any money. But with both flights covered through the state program and the $500 bonuses, they can make a short vacation.
“It’s pretty easy,” he said. The drug is “exactly the same.”
And the travel means the drug saves their public insurer thousands, helping save taxpayer money and bring down premiums, his wife, Robbin Williams, said.
“I just think it’s the moral and right thing to do,” she said.