CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Bruce Smith remembers laughing on the phone with his sister.

It was May. He was teaching her how to set up a video conference call so they could celebrate Mother’s Day as a family with their 92-year-old mom Charlene, who lives in a nursing home.

It was the last time the two ever spoke.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life. I’ve been in various situations in the Marine Corps, from operation Urgent Fury in Grenada to the multinational peacekeeping force in Beirut, Lebanon. The hardest thing was to tell my mom that her daughter was gone,” Smith said. “That for me was the hardest part of this whole pandemic.”

Queen Esther Martinez died of complications from COVID-19 weeks after their phone call. She was 70.

“She was a beautiful person,” Smith said of his sister. “She … had a heart of gold, just big-hearted person, always had this million-dollar smile. And so I miss her very much.”

The day after the two talked, Martinez’s son rushed her to the hospital. She was put on a ventilator.

Two days later, Martinez’s son was also taken to the hospital with COVID-19 and placed on a ventilator. He survived but still struggles with related complications.

“This disease has taken over his body to the point where he’s not the same. He’s in therapy and he constantly has different issues that he’s dealing with,” Smith said. “We’re just blessed that he made it through.

“My sister, not so lucky.”

Smith’s mother also tested positive for the virus and had to be moved from her Grand Rapids nursing home to one in Flint. She was an asymptomatic carrier and after a few weeks was able to return to her regular home.

She struggles with dementia, which Smith said is vicious. But when he told her about her daughter, it was a moment of comfort in the face of tragedy.

“We cried together and a half hour later, as I was sitting there with her, she looked up at me and she said, ‘What are you doing here?'” Smith said, explaining he was allowed to enter the nursing home, dressed head to toe in personal protective gear, so he could tell her the news in person. “I thought at that very moment that this is something that’s actually helped her heart because at that moment she had forgotten. God works in mysterious ways and amazing ways as well.”


Smith has now found himself in an amazing position on the front lines of a fight against a virus that has ravaged his family.

He’s a package handler at the FedEx facility at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. On Sunday, his co-workers began loading the first shipments of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine onto planes. They were headed to Memphis and from there across the country to those most in need.

“I’m sure that my sister would be proud to know that I am hands-on to move this vaccine through this particular area right here in Grand Rapids,” Smith said proudly. “I think she would say, ‘Little brother, avenge me from this terrible disease that has taken my life.’ And I’m glad to be a part of it so that others won’t have that same fate that my sister did.”

The FedEx Express team will use its network of more than 5,000 facilities, 670 aircraft, 180,000 vehicles and almost 600,000 employees across the country to deliver a vaccine to hundreds of millions of anxious Americans.

The company says its cargo has near real-time monitoring capabilities, a dedicated health care team to support the vaccine shipments and temperature control solutions, vital for the viability of the Pfizer vaccine.

“This is among the most important work in the history of our company, and we’re honored to be a part of the effort to help end this pandemic,” FedEx President and Chief Operation Officer Raj Subramaniam said. “I am immensely proud of our dedicated team members who continue to go above and beyond to help ensure the safe movement of these critical COVID-19 vaccines, especially during our busiest holiday shipping season to date. This is who we are and what we do at FedEx.”

On any given day, Smith will handle thousands of boxes. He helps unload, sort and reload two planes and road trucks for transport. After a while, all the boxes seem to run to together, he said.

Not this time.

Now, it’s personal for him. The Pfizer boxes hold “life in a bottle,” as he called it. They are the key to returning to normalcy, to hug his mother again, to visit his sister’s grave in Georgia, to help save the lives of those he loves and avenge the one he lost.

“If I have the honor of just touching that box, knowing what it is. That means everything to me, because I can’t go forward without that vaccine,” Smith said. “None of us can.”

Package handler Bruce Smith stands in front of a FedEx plane at Gerald R. Ford International Airport. (Dec. 14, 2020)