Home at last: Louisville man, world traveler, back from India after harrowing experience

Erica Lemberger kisses her father, Matthew Lemberger, during their reunion in San Francisco. (photo provided by Matthew Lemberger)

After three weeks in an Indian hospital, recovering from sepsis and organ failure in a country under lockdown due to the coronavirus, a Jewish Louisvillian has finally come home.
Matthew Lemberger’s flight from San Francisco landed at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport late Tuesday night – the last leg on the 77-year-old world traveler’s arduous homeward journey.
Confined to a wheelchair, Lemberger endured a 17-hour flight from Delhi, India, a long layover and a 15-hour road trip by ambulance from Trivandrum at the southern tip of the subcontinent, where he had been hospitalized since March.
Before the journey home, Matthew ”fought for his life,” in the ICU while hospitalized in Trivandrum, tethered to an IV medicating him with antibiotics, said his daughter, Erica Lemburger.
His homeward odyssey may not have started at all, were it not for a help of rabbis, lawmakers, community leaders, journalists and hundreds of other donors to her GoFundMe page, many of whom have never met Matthew.
He also benefitted from the compassion of two Muslim men – Umar and Kaiser – owners of the guesthouse where he stayed before his illness. They cared for him day and night while he was hospitalized. The men brought him food when nursing services were not available.
Erica, a nurse practitioner in Louisville who started the GoFundMe account to pay for her father’s journey home, flew to San Francisco Monday to greet him. She texted Community that he could not walk when he deplaned.
Erica said Matthew’s ordeal, and the many people who came to his aid, have brought her closer to God.
“I’ve been reading tehillim (psalms) daily,” Erica said. “It talks about all the ways we have not done well by HaShem (God) and all the miracles HaShem has done for us. So it’s connected me. This has rejuvenated my spiritual connection to HaShem.”
The Lemberger family’s ordeal began in March while Matthew, a retired teacher and author of 13 books, was taking a winter trip through India.
This trip turned from adventure to ordeal when, shortly after his arrival, the Indian government put the country on “lockdown,” to control the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Matthew decided to ride out the lockdown in India instead of finding a way home. But he soon became ill due to lack of food and water. When he went into the town of Varkala to find groceries, he collapsed in a street, severely dehydrated.
Erica said people were afraid to help him, fearing that Westerners were bringing COVID-19 to India.
A social worker got him to a hospital, where was treated for dehydration. He returned to his guesthouse, but his condition deteriorated. Days later he was hospitalized again. Umar and Kaiser continued to look after him.
Erica had been informed of her father’s illness, but communicating with him directly was difficult.
“There was no internet and no phone service,” she said. “So I would record videos and send them to these two men (Umar and Kaiser). They would show my dad the videos and then record him and send them back to me, so we could communicate.”
Umar and Kaiser cared for Matthew “as if was their own father, without asking for anything in return” Erica added. “And they hardly knew him when my dad got sick.”
Matthew’s health continued to decline, forcing him to miss two repatriation flights out of the country. He was finally transferred to a private hospital, where he arrived with urosepsis – an infection of the urinary tract – and multi-organ failure.
“They had to slow-code him to keep him alive,” Erica said, “provide advance cardiac life support and get his organs to maintain themselves. He ended up in the intensive care unit … for several days.”
He was also isolated in the ICU until a COVID-19 test could be performed. All told, he had three such tests – all negative.
He was transferred to a regular room and showed strong signs of healing, but he was still sick and getting out of India was still a problem.
Sen. Mitch McConnell helped facilitate two repatriation flights, neither of which Matthew could get on because of his condition. Erica then approached Rep. John Yarmuth’s office, which she said “took the lead” on his case.
“Initially, they helped with insurance, reimbursement and covering his medical costs,” Erica said, “because in India you cannot be released from the hospital until you pay your bill upfront.”
She also been in touch with the State Department and the U.S. Embassy every day since her father got sick, to arrange another repatriation flight. At one point she was told there would be no more such flights because of the national lockdown, which would have left her father stranded.
Even if another repatriation flight could be arranged, getting Matthew out of the country – ground transport and the flight – would be expensive.
Enter Tara Bassett, a longtime Louisville TV journalist and “livecaster” on Facebook who posted an interview with Erica “within five minutes of talking to me.”
Bassett’s interview got picked up by the news outlets, garnering support (and funds) for Erica’s GoFundMe account. took.
Bassett also helped Erica facilitate contact with Yarmuth’s staff, with whom she nhas close ties. Yarmuth’s team held a stream of conference calls with the embassy in India, helping to arrange another repatriation flight, the one that finally got Matthew out.
Said Erica of Bassett, “She has been the greatest advocate and trusted friend that I have ever met.”
Both Erica and Bassett credited Nicole Yates, Yarmuth’s chief of staff, for her work in facilitating the flight.
Several Louisville rabbis, cantors and community leaders also stepped in to raise money to pay for Matthew’s return home. All told, the GoFundMe account raised nearly $20,000.
The author of 13 books, in addition to his travels, Matthew has visited many countries in Europe, Asia and South America, using his daughter and granddaughters’ home in Louisville as “home base” between trips.
When he is home, though, father and daughter love to walk the Big Four Bridge together. It’s their thing.
Not this time, at least for now, while Matthew recovers from his experience.
“He’s a really well accomplished man, an interesting man,” Erica said. “His mind was very strong, and his body was very strong before getting there (India). But the state he’s in is very weak.”
She hopes that will change now that he is home.
“He has a private duty nurse,” she quipped.

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