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Florencio Bernal-Michua

When VerLee Hunt didn't show up to work at 6 a.m. Sunday, her co-workers figured something must be wrong.

She was the charge nurse at Cedar City's Valley View Medical Center, responsible for assigning staff to take care of patients. Mostly, she was VerLee — always reliable, always on time, always compassionate, competent and loving. She was so committed to the job of caring for the sick that when she lost her thumb in a horse accident in the late '90s, she fought to regain the skills she'd need to maintain her career.

"I wasn't sure if she'd be able to do everything a nurse needs to be able to do, without a thumb," said Cyndi Wallace, nurse administrator and longtime colleague and friend. "She was absolutely determined she was going to do everything she needed to do and do it technically perfect. If it wasn't perfect, she'd have given it up. That kind of embodied who she was."

Hunt, 57, died early Sunday morning when she stopped to see if anyone was injured at the site of an accident she passed on a desolate stretch of highway as she was driving to work. A man has been jailed in connection with her death. He is scheduled to appear in Cedar City's 5th District Court today.

Utah Highway Patrol troopers said a pickup slid on the slick roads early Sunday and landed upside-down.

The driver "hitched into town and left the vehicle sitting there blocking traffic," UHP trooper Preston Raban said Monday.

Meanwhile, troopers said, Hunt came upon the accident.

"She got out to check and see if there were any injuries," Raban said. "A vehicle was behind her and did not stop in time and struck her and killed her."

A family of five inside that vehicle was transported to Valley View Medical Center to be treated for their injuries.

"She was just doing a good deed," Raban said of Hunt. "Being a good Samaritan, and that's what happened."

Her friends at the hospital were not surprised she stopped to help.

Kathy Breinholt, manager of the medical-surgical unit where Hunt worked, said Hunt earned a reputation for compassion and caring throughout her career, which included years as a hospice nurse before she went to work at the hospital six years ago. "I've been told she was one of the best hospice nurses you can find. She worked well with families in helping them get through that process.

"She was very clinically competent, but she always kept the patient uppermost in her mind. She always had time to talk to them. She was special in that you knew when she was taking care of a patient, the whole patient was taken care of."

Hunt and her husband raised quarterhorses and have seven grown children. The couple had been working, a room at a time, on remodeling their house. When Breinholt asked her why it was so big, she said it was so her children can always come back for Christmas, which was a big deal to Hunt.

"She's one of those people who go completely out at Christmas," Wallace said, with a whole room dedicated to her decorations and Christmas village.

But family was always what meant the most to her. "Every year, she made sure she had the deer hunt off because it was a huge family thing for them. Whenever requests for time off came, she put that down. She was all about family," Breinholt said.

Troopers on Monday were still investigating whether to cite the driver of the vehicle that hit Hunt.

Meanwhile, the driver of the pickup was found asleep by authorities at a home in Beryl Junction.

Florencio Bernal-Michua, 32, was charged Monday with negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor; failure to remain at the scene of an accident, operating a vehicle without insurance, both class B misdemeanors; failure to report an accident and no driver's license, both class C misdemeanors.

He is also being held in the Iron County Jail on an immigration detainer, suspected of being in the country illegally.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com; bwinslow@desnews.com