NEWARK, N.J. — When Carlos Pacheco, Jamie Greene and their three children visited Aruba last month, they expected a typical family vacation — nothing like the nightmare that caused two members to be stranded in the Caribbean for nearly a month.

On May 17, as the family was attempting to board their return flight from Aruba to Newark, their 15-year-old son Elijah, who has autism, experienced a sensory episode.

“We had gone on many vacations driving, and Elijah had never had any issues,” Pacheco told NJ Advance Media. “We flew to Disney last year, and he enjoyed the plane ride and even the roller coasters there. Nothing seemed to startle him, so we felt it was safe to go to Aruba.”

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When the family began to board the United Airlines plane, Elijah stopped at the doorway and began to scream “toilet,” his way of saying something was wrong.

“I gave him gentle nudge and we made it to our seats, then he lost control. He refused to sit, and Jamie and I had to hold him down. Something caused him to be overwhelmed, and he began to hit (Greene) and me and continued screaming,” Pacheco said.

A flight attendant informed the parents that the captain had requested them to return to the gate. Elijah’s doctors in the United States had prescribed fast-acting medication in case the teen became agitated. The parents administered the medicine but there was no change in his behavior. They knew flying on a commercial airline was no longer an option, sensing it would trigger another episode.

Pacheco and Greene then tried a medical evacuation company but were turned down. A cruise line refused to help, too.

The family was stuck on an island, 2,000 miles from home.

“Even the U.S. Consulate in Aruba ran out of ideas, and I had to get our two other children back to school at Toms River, so Brandon, Brice, and I flew back,” Pacheco said.

As Pacheco recounted the ordeal last week, he watched a white van pull up outside his townhome.

“I think they’re home,” he said, jumping up and rushing outside to greet his wife and son, who in that moment had finally returned. They’d been gone since May 10.

Pacheco, Greene and Elijah embraced before Elijah ran inside to find his iPad.

“I cannot believe we’re finally home,” Greene said with relief. “At one point, I thought we would be stuck on Aruba forever.”

How they got home

On May 22, Julian Maha was scrolling through Facebook at his Birmingham, Ala. home when he came across Greene’s post pleading for help. Maha asked his friend Vicky Rey, vice president of guest care and communications at Carnival Cruise line, if she could assist. Rey arranged for one of their ships to divert course to Aruba and pick up Greene and Elijah, dropping them off in Miami.

Maha also asked two volunteers from KultureCity — a nonprofit organization Maha founded to promote sensory inclusion and acceptance for those with invisible disabilities — to drive from Atlanta to Miami, and then drive Greene and Elijah back to their home in Toms River.

“Given Carnival’s close partnership with KultureCity, our team has a deep understanding of the needs of individuals with sensory and invisible disabilities,” Rey said. “When the organization contacted us about Elijah’s situation and we realized we could bring him back to the United States on one of our ships, we did not hesitate to offer help.”

Maha adds: “I knew the minute I read that post that I had to help. I am grateful that (Greene) and Elijah are home safely. Their story resonated on so many levels since my autistic child Abram is of the same age as Elijah. My wife Michele and I identified with their sense of hopelessness and desperation.”

On the board of KultureCity are several celebrities including “Jersey Shore” TV star Jenni Farley, aka “JWoww.”

“The troubles that (Greene) and Elijah endured were truly heart-breaking,” Farley said in a statement. “A few years back, my son Greyson became overstimulated at an airport and had a sensory overload experience. After I heard about (Greene) and her son, I reached out to her while she was stuck in Aruba. The situation is unfortunately all too common.”

Greene appreciated the call from Farley.

“(Farley) was very supportive and told me that I was doing a great job through a very tough situation,” Greene said. “I needed to hear that at the time. It meant a lot.”

A new mission

A few minutes after the family was reunited, Greene looked at Pacheco next to her, then at Elijah playing with his iPad, and shook her head.

“Policies have to change. I understand that airlines must follow safety protocols, but something like this should have never happened,” Greene said, noting how she wished the airline could have presented an alternate plan to return her and her child home and not left them to fend for themselves.

“Airlines should treat invisible disabilities the same way they treat visible disabilities. Invisible disabilities include autism, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, ADHD, strokes and other mental health challenges,” Greene added.

United Airlines policy on disability lists several types of special needs accommodations including wheelchair access, CPAP machines, and service animals, but does not list a specific policy for passengers with autism.

Greene wiped her eyes and continued: “We never thought this could happen to us. We now plan to be involved with KultureCity and the autism community. I’m seeing the silver lining, just the chance that a policy might change as a result of our story is enough for me.”

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