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David Jolly staff coordinates effort to return injured Tampa woman back from Cuba

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That’s the reason, says Mike Honeycut, the CEO and co-founder of the Hernando County based air ambulance company JET I.C.U., that his company is eating the estimated $15,000-$20,000 in costs to fly injured USF student Barbara Jimenez from Cuba back to Tampa, where she will then begin receiving care at Tampa General Hospital.

“I feel that when you have the opportunity to give back, I think you should,” he said at a press conference held at the Marshall Center on the USF Tampa campus on Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve very blessed here in Tampa Bay.”

Jimenez was injured in a traumatic car accident earlier this month while visiting family in Cuba. The 22-year-old was in a coma for several days following the accident and does not have health insurance or the money to return back to the Bay area.

So Honeycut, a Pinellas County resident, called Congressman David Jolly‘s office on Monday after watching a news account of the Jimenez family’s plight the night before, telling staffers that he could assist. The Jimenez family had been quoted as saying that several air ambulance companies informed them that it would cost them at least $50,000 to do so to transfer Jimenez back to Tampa.

Barbara Jimenez is a sister from the Beta Gamma chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority at USF, and at Wednesday’s press conference dozens of her fellow sisters attended, standing along a side wall as they listened to the speakers. Jimenez was vacationing with her boyfriend, 23-year-old John Fox, in Cuba when on August 3 they were involved in a car crash.

The driver of the cab passed away from his injuries; his four passengers, among them Barbara, her boyfriend and her two relatives, were rushed to area hospitals in critical condition. Jimenez suffered a skull fracture and severe head trauma, and required an emergency tracheotomy to open her airways.

“We are honored, it is our pleasure, it is our duty, to shepherd Barbie home, so that she can begin her rehabilitative process here in Tampa,” said Dr. Carlos Smith, the medical director of JET I.C.U. He said he spoke on Tuesday with the neurosurgeon in Cuba working with Jimenez. “He is very encouraged with the strides that she has made,” he said.

JET I.C.U. is a twelve-year-old company that operates four Lear jets out of the Hernando County airport, and has flown all over the world to transport Americans back to their homeland after being injured overseas. They were approved several years ago by the State Department and Treasury Department to fly Americans out of Cuba, and Honeycut says they’ve made approximately 10-15 trips to the island since then.

Honeycut said that Americans traveling overseas often neglect getting travelers insurance, but says “he wouldn’t leave without” when traveling to Cuba. “From what we understand, the Cuban health system is great – they have no issue with treating Americans – but it’s getting back. You just don’t go back to the airport and get on a commercial flight in a situation like that.”

Caridad Jimenez said her sister had made tremendous improvements in the three weeks since the accident. “She’s a strong-willed individual, so there was no doubt in my mind she was going to be able to come out of this.”

Caridad added that Barbara as received “the most amazing care” while in Cuba, but her family desperately wants her back in the states because there is greater access to resources in Tampa.

She also gave a shout out to The Beta Gamma Chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority for launching a GoFundMe page called ‘Bring Barbie Home,‘ hoping to raise $75,000 to help cover Barbara’s medical expenses.

Congressman Jolly said that he “anticipates” that Barbara will be transported from Cuba back to Tampa on Friday, but there are no guarantees. “We are planning for that, but we are not prepared to make that announcement today,” he said.

Jolly gave praise to members of his office, including chief of staff J.D. White and press secretary Preston Rudie, for helping to coordinate the effort.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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