Angel Flight offers free flights, via Blaine
By Jack Kintner
Brad and Diane O’Neill of Blaine celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary two years ago by re-enacting their vows on the beach near Tofino, on Vancouver Island. That was right after a doctor found a possibly cancerous condition in Brad O’Neill’s neck that upon further examination, after the ceremony and celebration were over, appeared to be benign.
“My doctor said at the time we’d better keep an eye on it, and I’m glad we did,” said O’Neill recently. Early in April of this year a routine magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan in Bellingham revealed an unrelated tumor near the base of his tongue, and O’Neill was immediately signed up for seven weeks of daily radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.
“I want you to know that I have an extremely positive attitude towards the treatment I am about to receive,” he said in an April e-mail telling friends about his condition, “and am optimistic that I have a good chance in winning this battle. I have great doctors in Seattle. In the time being, thank you for all your past support, friendship and love. It’s that kind of support that will help me make it through this ordeal.”
O’Neill’s friends, organized by Diane, have provided transportation to and from downtown Seattle every weekday since May 8 and will until the treatments end June 27. Though he at first seemed to be relatively unaffected, the treatments inevitably took its toll, giving O’Neill what looks like a bad sunburn on his neck and leaving him temporarily unable to swallow or speak above a hoarse whisper. About halfway through the regimen he began using a feeding tube, but said his doctors told him he’d recover the ability to speak and swallow a couple of months after treatments stop.
As the weeks have worn on and O’Neill has gotten worn down, local pilots have stepped in to take two of the five round trips each week. “I sure appreciate the drivers, but at this point not having to do four hours on I-5 five times a week is a help,” O’Neill said.
One of the pilots, Bob Brunkow, is a member of Angel Flight, an international organization of volunteer pilots that offers free transportation for people needing treatment when getting to it is a hardship.
Angel Flight is a highly organized effort and for safety’s sake as much a stickler for detail as an airline. Like an airline it carefully certifies and monitors its pilots and aircraft to be able to set up complex but reliable schedules to carry people and other medical necessities such as blood from often rural and remote locations to treatment centers, usually located in big cities. The service makes a dramatic difference in travel time, and may allow patients to remain at home during treatment. It also saves money, as the flights are offered free of charge.
“If you need it, we’ll do it,” said Brunkow, adding that it’s not uncommon for a patient’s doctor or relatives not to believe this at first. Since neither the pilots nor Angel Flight is involved on a medical basis, they call the people they transport clients, not patients. Angel Flight’s Christian Holt recently made a presentation about their program at Point Roberts.
For O’Neill, flying cuts the travel time roughly in half. Though Blaine is not as remote as Point Roberts or many of the other places Angel Flight travels to, the trips that Brunkow and others have made to get O’Neill to and from Seattle illustrate an intangible but equally important benefit, according to O’Neill. “It lifts your spirits, and that’s important in ways that only other cancer patients can understand,” he said.
Another Angel Flight client interviewed for this story (who declined to give her name) needed to go to Portland from Orcas Island for dialysis treatments. In her case, the travel time was reduced from 12 hours to an hour and a half, and the expense from about $200 to nothing. She said that one of the things that happened to her when she was diagnosed with kidney disease was that her world suddenly changed from one of “moving through life in big satisfying chunks to moving very slowly, inches at a time, looking for moments of hope. That makes little things huge, like a visit from a friend or a special trip like this.”
“Attitude is everything,” O’Neill agreed, “And when friends extend themselves for you like this it’s like water in the desert.” He added he would probably have been able to make the occasional trip during his weeks of treatment by air without Angel Flight, but many others could not. “It’s a wonderful break in the drudgery of the treatment routine, to get there comfortably, safely and fast,” he said.
O’Neill’s trips land at Boeing Field, a 10-minute drive from the medical center. If it’s a radiation day he reports to the basement where a $2 million laser-guided machine called a Klystron will bombard him with six megavolts of photon energy for a half hour. It damages a lot of cells, but the cancerous ones can’t grow back and, hopefully, will die.
Brunkow said that a patient who wants to take advantage of the service simply contacts Angel Flight and makes a request. A simple application process verifies the need by checking with health care providers, and then posts the mission on its website for a qualified Angle Flight pilot to accept. Brunkow said he flies two or three missions per month, “but others fly a lot more. But it’s not about me. The organization makes this possible for everyone, not just people with friends who fly.”
Angel Flight puts a lot of effort into details, from making sure that insurance and other necessary paperwork for both the plane and the pilot are up to date on the day of the mission to having a plan B, a way of making the mission should weather or mechanical problems cancel the flight. “Everything is done to minimize the risk to the patient and have a safe trip,” Brunkow said. For more information, go to www.angelflight.org.