Tony’s Road Trip
Part of the “Live Like You’re Dying" series
Four years ago, Tony Geryk received a heart transplant. Now at 21, his heart is failing. Not knowing how much time he has left, he went on a two-week road trip with family to cross items off his bucket list. Victoria Advocate photojournalist Angela Piazza has followed the Geryk family on their journey.
Monday, June 19, 2017
At 11:10 p.m., the Geryks couldn’t wait anymore.
Their bags were packed, the RV was stocked and the family including close friend, Mary Benedick, two dogs, Fankie, a shitzu terrier, and Sam, a standard poodle, were gathered in a room of the Geryk’s Port Lavaca home. They have planned their road trip since April after middle son, Tony Geryk, found out his body was rejecting his new heart.
Every nook and cranny of their RV, a rented 2005 Fleetwood Jamboree, holds items for their trip, which left cramped quarters for the road trippers.
“It’s a really tight fit but that’s what it’s all about,” Alice, Tony’s mother, said. “When you’re stuck in a small place together, you’re forced to make memories with each other.”
Ten minutes later, the Jamboree’s tires hit Farm-to-Market Road 2433. Tony’s father, Mark, was behind the wheel, Aunt Jeanna Hooker riding shotgun, his younger sister, Rebekah, Mary and dog Frankie, bunked in the forward overhang, and Tony, Alice and dog Sam snuggled in the dining area, which converts into a bunk.
Their first stop was in Victoria at a Shell gas station. While the RV swallowed $90, Alice and Tony recorded Snapchat messages.
Before heading out of town the crew made one more stop at Citizens Medical Center. Tony’s oldest sister, Patty Hermes, a nurse, and some of her coworkers gathered outside the hospital’s emergency entrance to say goodbye to Tony.
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Just after 2:45 a.m, the Geryks lost one of their crew. Their dog Sam, who has a history of car sickness, according to Alice, was showing visible signs of stress. The standard poodle was dropped off at Jeanna’s office, Deer Park Animal Shelter, where her coworkers will look after the pet for the duration of the trip.
Sometime after 3 a.m., Alice softly sang along with Stevie Nicks’s Landslide playing on station 99.1. Tony rolled over in his bunk and fell asleep.
Over the Texas, Louisiana border, Tony was woken by his mother’s perturbed voice which resonated from the driver’s seat, “Tony you’re missing the sign because it’s on the damn bridge.”
Despite her initial concern, Alice found a place to pull over. It was 5:26 a.m. and passing traffic was too close for comfort. After a brief and somewhat parlous walk along Interstate 10, Jeanna, snapped two hurried photos of Tony next to the green, “Welcome to Louisiana/ Beinvenue en Louisiana” sign.
“That was fun,” Tony said after the RV pulled safely back onto the highway.
Later in the morning, Mary hung pink and green posters in the RV’s windows prompting people to “Honk 4 Tony.”
Sleep, breakfast at Waffle House and a couple fuel stops, wrapped up Louisiana.
At 12:30 p.m., Tony posed for another photo at the Mississippi border. After climbing back into the RV he asked “Where’s the steak?”
Mid afternoon, Tony shut himself to the bathroom for a few minutes to brush his teeth an wash his face. However, his mother and aunt had become concerned he had a stomach ache. Jeanna explained that when Tony is having issues with his heart, blood leaves his stomach and intestines causing a stomachache.
“It’ll be crying in excruciating pain (in his stomach) and then he’ll go,” Alice said in a choked up voice. After returning from the bathroom, Tony assured his mother and aunt that his stomach was fine. The mood lightened considerably and laughter filled the cabin again.
On the way to their next destination, they passed through a National Guard base. Mary, Tony and Rebekah spotted a tank out the window. The RV pulled over so they could take a photo with it. “If we’re just passing through somewhere and see something I like, we’ll stop and take a picture with it,” Tony said.
In Houston, Miss., the manager of Stinkin Jims, an RV park and campground, Melisha Sims, organized a horseback ride, one of Tony’s bucket list items, and a dinner consisting of chicken, ribs and steak and reserved a cabin for the Geryks and family.
Overwhelmed by the stranger’s generosity, Alice became dizzy and buried her face in her hands. She was alone in the rear of the RV.
“They’re doing all of this for my son and they don’t even know him,” Alice said. “They’ve just gone beyond. There’s a lot of good people out there.”
Extended family, who live in the area, joined the group at Stinkin Jims for a few hours. Alice’s cousin, Ruby Lee Lancaster, brought snacks to replenish the RV’s supply.
By 7:30 p.m. Tony had checked off another bucket list item. A wide smile stretched under a straw cowboy hat. Tony had brushed and rode Zeke, a bay Tennessee Walking Horse.
“It was actually exciting,” he said.
With Tony in the saddle, Zeke’s owner James Pettit, led the horse around the campground. After, his sister Rebekah had a turn on Zeke.
“It was awesome,” Rebekah said. “It felt like I was almost as tall as those trees.”
After filling their bellies with barbecue, baked potatoes, salad, ice tea and ice cream, the group turned in to their three bedroom cabin for the evening.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
The crew rose at 8 a.m. in Houston, Miss. for the second day of Tony Geryk’s bucket list road trip.
Alice, Tony’s mother, was in the living room of their three bedroom cabin visiting with her cousin, Ruby Lee Lancaster. Ruby brought biscuits and doughnuts for everyone.
More than an hour later, the 2005 Fleetwood Jamboree sped along a dirt road toward their next destination, the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
“I knew we weren’t going to leave at 9,” Tony said. The family is perpetually late.
By 10:30 a.m., it was clear they were not going to make their dinner reservation. Alice rescheduled it for later that evening.
The blue-and-white “Sweet Home Alabama” sign came into view at 11:30 a.m. Alice braked hard and pulled onto the highway shoulder so Tony could get a photo.
“We didn’t know we were going to go all the way through Alabama,” Tony said.
At 11:55 a.m., Tony, his sister Rebekah and family friend Mary Benedick started throwing cheeseballs at each other until Alice sternly warned them not to grind the orange snacks into the carpet.
Around lunchtime, Tony was taking in the countryside through the RV window. His Aunt Jeanna Hooker watched a video of Tony in the hospital. She and Alice recalled a separate stay when he went into rejection and was put into a medically induced coma.
A doctor told them Tony might not have brain activity afterward. Alice told the doctor, “I don’t care; I’ll push him around in a wheelbarrow, and he can lick windows.”
Tony piped up in his usual cheery sarcastic manner and said, “I’ll lick these windows right here.”
The next photo was taken at the Tennessee state line, then Georgia, which meant more abuse for the RV’s brakes.
“We just don’t know where we’re going to be at,” Tony said with a grin. “We’re just sightseeing right now.”
When the Great Smoky Mountains came into view, Tony, Rebekah, Jeanna and Mary packed into and around the aisle of the Jamboree to look out the front window.
The RV pulled into the parking lot of Hatfield and McCoys just in time for their 8 p.m. reservation. Tony said he chose to add the comedy dinner show to his bucket list because his father, Mark, is related to the Hatfields.
The walk from the parking lot to the theater was too far for Tony, so his father pushed him in a wheelchair.
They picked up their tickets and walked through the gift shop filled with hillbilly-themed knicknacks. A man in overalls handed Tony a toy rifle and Mark a jug labeled “XXX Moonshine” for a photo before the show.
The group was coincidentally seated for dinner on the Hatfield side of the theater.
During the show, Alice handed Tony a fistful of pills, which he swallowed in one gulp. He does this twice a day at 9 in the morning and night.
Well into the evening at the RV park, Mary asked Tony if getting married was on his bucket list because she would be willing to accommodate. He said no.
The pair of friends had a good laugh about their hypothetical marriage among themselves and then with Tony’s parents.
Laughter continued until 3:30 a.m., when the last of the weary travelers dozed off.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
More than 1,000 driving miles away from his Port Lavaca home, Tony Geryk stirred in his bunk. It was about 7 a.m. in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. and the third day of his bucket list road trip.
“Today is the Creation Museum,” Tony said smiling. “That’ll be a sight to see.”
His parents Mark and Alice, sister Rebekah, aunt Jeanna Hooker and family friend Mary Benedick, were also excited for the experience.
At 9:10 a.m., the crew pulled out of the RV Park headed to Kentucky. A few minutes into the drive, they passed the entrance to Dollywood. A sign posted out front said, “Love every moment.” The road trippers related to the theme park slogan.
Before leaving Tennessee, they stopped at Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Tony complained of a bellyache and excused himself to the gift shop restroom. Worried, Alice asked Mark to go check on him. Tony felt better after a plate of french toast and a short game of checkers with Mary.
The Kentucky state sign appeared off the Interstate 75 at 12:52 p.m. and Jeanna, who was driving pulled over. The guard rail was so close, Tony could not open the camper’s door. His mother said, they would make a U-Turn and take a photo when they exit the state on Friday.
Just after 4:30 p.m. the RV pulled into the Creation Museum parking lot in Petersburg, Ky. Filled with excitement, Tony clapped his hands and pumped his fist in the air over his head.
Next to the Ark Encounter, the Creation Museum was at the top of his bucket list.
While touring the museum, Tony’s phone ran out of battery so he borrowed his mother’s. He took more than 100 photos at the museum.
They finished their unguided tour at 6:53 p.m. Mark was pushing Tony’s wheelchair and jokingly said the only animal he didn’t see was the one-eyed, one-horn, flyin’ purple people eater.
Before exiting the museum, the group stopped at a fudge counter and bought seven slices for desert after their Frito pie, with homemade chili, and tomato sandwich dinner.
Later in the evening, as Jeanna was heating up the chili she made before the trip, the toilet backed up. Raw sewage spilled over the sides of the bowl and rushed across the RV floor. The next 30 minutes were frantic efforts to stop the flow. Jeanna and Mark attempted to resolve the issue from the outside while Mary and Alice mopped up the mess inside.
“This is something we will probably end up laughing about tomorrow, but right now it ain’t funny,” Alice said while laughing. “This too shall pass.”
When the mess was contained, Alice and Mary took a bird bath in the RV’s sinks.
Despite the earlier crisis, the RV was once more filled with gut-busting laughter as they enjoyed their Frito pies and fudge.
“We did have a great flood, it just didn’t happen at the Ark,” Mary joked.
Every moment may not be enjoyable, but this tight-knit, resilient family somehow finds a way to make them all lovable.
Friday, June 23, 2017
At exactly 9 a.m., Alice Geryk’s cellphone alarm sounded. It was the first daily reminder for her son to take his medication. Tony rolled out of his bunk and swallowed the contents of the Friday A.M. pill planner slot.
It was the latest his family plus family friend, Mary Benedick, had slept since departing on Tony’s bucket list road trip.
“Did you get some sleep last night?” Tony’s father, Mark asked.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “After we stopped laughing.”
The previous night, Tony; his sister, Rebekah; aunt Jeanna Hooker; and Mary stayed up cracking jokes about the toilet backing up in the RV.
Alice had called the RV’s manager for help the night before. He called back to check on the situation just before the crew left the RV park in Corinth, Ky., for the Ark Encounter, Tony’s next bucket list item. Tony overheard the conversation and added to it, “We played in poop; at least we didn’t wallow in it.”
After parking, walking about five minutes to admissions, Alice walking back to the RV for forgotten tickets and a shuttle ride, the six sightseers found themselves staring in awe at a biblically proportioned Noah’s Ark.
“It’s big,” was all Tony could muster on first impression.
Shortly after their arrival, Tony noticed the park provided complimentary wifi. It was an extra-pleasant surprise because he forgot to purchase phone data before the trip, according to Alice.
It took the group more than two hours to tour all three decks of the seven-story, 510-foot-long ark.
“I’m ready for some grub in the tube,” Mark said.
Lunch was an on-site buffet with large taxidermy animals lining the dining area. During the dessert course, Tony looked over at Rebekah’s plate and said, “It’s macaroni and cheese and RV leftovers,” referring to her chocolate pudding.
After the buffet, they wandered into the gift shop, where they bought a second dessert: ice cream. “It’ll fill in the cracks,” Alice joked. Ice cream in hand, Alice, Jeanna and Mary continued to shop. Tony, Mark and Rebekah walked to the Ark Encounter’s zoo, where they saw kangaroos, goats, donkeys, camels, ostriches and other animals.
By 4:13 p.m., they were exhausted from walking and ready to call it a day. “Y’all can poke me with a fork; I’m done,” Alice told the others.
On the way back to the RV, rain started to pelt the group. Mary placed a paper shopping bag over her head to shield her hair from the rain, which got progressively worse as they walked.
Once everyone was piled into the RV, which required more effort than usual because the automatic collapsible stairs would not extend, Alice tried to start the engine without success.
Earlier, when she parked the camper, she had forgotten to turn off the headlights, and they drained the battery.
Stranded in a torrential downpour, they searched for solutions. Mary eventually called a park number she located on the Ark Encounter map brochure, and an attendant with jumper cables came to the rescue.
They passed the Indiana state line around 6 p.m. The rain had subsided enough for Tony to get a photo with the sign.
By now, the road trippers had visited seven states in four days.
They continued on the rain-slicked roads to Grandmother Carolyn Poling’s house in Butlerville, Ind., which is the final bucket list destination on their road trip.
June 24-July 1, 2017
Tony Geryk, 21, and his family made it back home to Port Lavaca after 12 days on the road in a rented RV.
They drove through at least 12 states crossing items off his bucket list along the way. The group spent about three days with his grandmother, Carolyn Poling, in Butlerville, Ind.
Tony’s adventures included stopping to briefly gamble at a casino and visiting the zoo and a museum. He also rode a boat, a hot air balloon and a train.
But they also had their share of mishaps. They got a flat tire and locked the keys in the RV, and at one point, the RV’s generator ran out of propane. Tony also got sick, but recovered after a few days.
His mother, Alice Geryk, said they made lots of memories during the road trip. “We talked about making memories and they weren’t all good, but in the end, they’re all good,” she said.
Tony's Trip to Florida
August 25, 2017
PANAMA CITY, FLA. - Hurricane Harvey was little more than a blip on the radar when Alice Geryk sensed something sinister brewing.
Her 21-year-old son, Tony Geryk, is in heart failure with his body rejecting the organ transplant that he received four years ago.
In the past two weeks, Tony lost an inch of mass around his left arm, sleeps most of the day and struggles to wake.
“I’m worried,” Alice said. “I almost feel like it’s the calm before the storm.”
Before Harvey hurtled toward their Port Lavaca home, the Geryks and family friend Mary Benedick, loaded bags into a rented 15 passenger van. They planned for months to visit Florida this week in hopes of spending time with the heart donor’s family.
Nine hours before a mandatory evacuation order was issued, they left their herd of goats and home behind.
They stopped briefly in Deer Park to drop off their two dogs and pick up Tony’s aunt, Jeanna Hooker.
Around 11 a.m. Thursday, news of Harvey’s aggressive and intensifying approach quieted the normally boisterous bunch.
Alice worried for her goats, and discussed the possibility of losing the family home and belongings with Tony’s father, Mark Geyrk.
The radio was on and verses of the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like A Hurricane” ironically burst through contemplative pauses in their discussion.
True to form, the road trip crew decided to make the best of a bad situation and enjoy their vacation as planned.
“We’re trying to not let the problems or storms back home ruin our vacation,” Mark said. “We want to enjoy this more. We’ll worry about that when we get back home.”
Earlier this summer, the crew traveled in a rented RV across the country crossing off items on Tony’s bucket list.
For this trip the family drove 16 and a half hours with stops, to Panama City, Fl. where they were greeted by warm sunshine and puffy white clouds.
Gentle aquamarine waves lapped over Tony, his sister Rebekah Geryk, Mark, Alice, Jeanna and Mary’s feet as they watched an egg yolk sun sink below the horizon. Back home, loved ones braced for the storm.
Tony meets with donor family
Aug. 25: Worried about home
PANAMA CITY, Fla. - The first full day of Tony Geryk’s vacation began with news of home.
Huddled around the TV in their Panama City condo living room, Tony, his parents, sister, aunt and family friend watched as meteorologists predicted utter devastation.
“It’s kind of disheartening to sit here thinking when you go home, you might not have a home to go home to,” his mother, Alice, said.
The vacationers left without preparing for a hurricane. Harvey was still a tropical storm when they drove out of Port Lavaca at 2 a.m. Aug. 24, to set out for Tony’s second road trip to cross items off his bucket list.
Family friend Mary Benedick expressed fear for a son who did not evacuate, two Chihuahuas, rental apartments and a furniture resale shop she left behind.
“We couldn’t do anything to prepare,” she said. “Most people who are evacuating can bring their pictures, their pets or whatever valuables and we couldn’t do that.”
The uncertainty and helplessness of their situation shifted the group’s happy-go-lucky dynamic. They made frequent, frantic calls home and at times, bickered over trifles.
However, moments of joy breached the worry Friday.
Family members of Tony’s heart donor, Zachary Guined, who gifted the Florida vacation, promised to meet up with Tony on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.
Tony floated in the Gulf on a pink inflatable flamingo wearing spangled swimming trunks, $1 cowboy boots courtesy of Goodwill and the cowboy hat he was given on his first bucket list road trip.
At sunset everyone enjoyed a catamaran boat ride and watched a playful spectacle put on by wild dolphins.
The evening got even sweeter when the group stopped for cookies and cream, chocolate peanut butter, butter pecan and more chocolate ice cream.
They concluded the day the same way it began, in a semicircle around the TV watching the storm strengthen.
The Geryks did not turn on the TV in their condo Saturday morning. No matter what was happening at home, they were determined to enjoy their vacation.
Eight hundred driving miles away, Hurricane Harvey was doing untold damage to Port Lavaca.
Jeanna Hooker, Tony’s aunt who traveled with the family to Panama City, lives in Deer Park. The family had discussed staying with her after they leave Florida until the way home was clear.
“I know the storm is there, but sometimes you just have to,” Jeanna inhaled deeply, “and look around you.”
Late morning, Tony, his family and friend snorkeled.
They jumped into clear blue water and watched dolphins swim mere inches under their feet.
Tony’s sister, Rebekah, said she had never been so close to them.
“I could like, reach out and touch one of them,” Rebekah said enthusiastically. “That’s how close they were to me.”
An overconfident Tony jumped into the water without a life jacket and briefly found himself in deep water.
“I figured I knew how to swim, so I didn’t need the jacket,” Tony said. However, as he drew nearer to a rocky pier, the waves overpowered him. His mother, Alice, came to his rescue and secured a life jacket around him.
In the afternoon, members of the heart donor’s family, visited from Alabama.
Tony gave Pam Thomas, Zachary’s mother, a painting of a cross he made for her.
“I don’t want to cry,” Thomas said.
Receiving news of Zachary’s death and now Tony’s failing heart was devastating to the family.
“We love Tony, and we are so glad we made this journey with him, but it is very hard for us,” Thomas said. “We’re still praying for a miracle.”
The two families enjoyed time on the beach and the condo’s swimming pool.
Exhausted from spending the day outside, they ate dinner in the condo. Tony led the prayer and asked God for a home to return to or a safe place to stay.
Thomas offered her home as refuge.
Zachary’s and Tony’s families finished the night playing Uno and catching up.
Once the Geryks, Hooker and Benedick were alone, they checked on the storm’s disastrous progress.
Aug. 27: Flying over Florida
In the early morning hours Sunday, Tony’s aunt, received numerous communications from home. She had learned that her Deer Park neighborhood was flooding.
With no hope of returning to Texas the following day as planned, the road trip vacationers were agitated and susceptible to episodes of crying.
The vacation was part of Tony’s bucket list as his body rejects the heart transplant he received four years ago from Zachary.
While out to breakfast with Zachary’s family, Rebekah asked her mother, Alice, what she wanted and she responded, “I don’t know,” with a distant look on her face.
The conversation at the table of nine drifted off with Alice’s unfocused stare.
Through watery eyes Tony’s aunt, Jeanna, said, “I think we just all want to be home right now.”
Zachary’s mother, Pam, and sister, Bethany, offered to extend the family’s stay at their condo. Zachary’s family had gifted the timeshare to the Geryks months prior.
After breakfast, the two families said their goodbyes and more tears were shed.
Pam reaffirmed she is holding out hope for a miracle that Tony’s heart wouldn’t fail.
In the afternoon, Tony got to check off another bucket list item: parasailing.
After 3 p.m. Tony and his father, Mark, rocketed off a boat and soared some 400 feet above water in Destin, Fla.
After being pulled safely back onto the boat, Mark, who was harnessed with Tony said, “That was fun, and at the same time you’re hoping nothing breaks.”
Tony said he also enjoyed the ride and that it didn’t frighten him.
The crew was hungry after parasailing so they stopped at Fudpucker’s, a seafood restaurant with live alligator attractions.
After dinner, Mary treated Tony to a photograph with a live 2-year-old alligator.
Advocate reporter Laura Garcia contributed to this project.