On the Wings of Angels
Angel Flight Northeast Changes Lives One Flight at a Time.
Imagine that your baby is born with a life-threatening disease that will require multiple surgeries. Besides the obvious concerns about the child’s health and future, you suddenly must consider staggering medical bills. To add to your worries, the best hospital for treatment is hundreds of miles away. How can you possibly pay for expensive flights in addition to everything else you’re facing? [ Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of mvm. ]
A nonprofit organization called Angel Flight Northeast exists to ease the financial and emotional burdens of medical transportation. Angel Flight NE has more than 1,000 volunteer pilots from nine northeastern states that provide transportation free of charge to patients whose financial resources don’t allow travel by commercial airlines. Pilots donate their time, skill, airplane, fuel and other operating expenses. They are willing to be awakened in the middle of the night or to change their schedules in a heartbeat in order to provide crucial help to people dealing with health crises or ongoing treatment.
Lyndon Holmes of North Andover has flown with Angel Flight NE for 10 years. A “late-to-life flyer,” Holmes got his pilot license at age 54, shortly before 9/11. “When 9/11 came along, I asked myself, ‘What can I do that might be useful?’” he says. His search led him to Angel Flight NE, where he saw the opportunity to combine his love of flying and his desire to “add value to the community.”
Holmes makes about 40 flights a year for Angel Flight NE. “We provide a magic carpet for the passengers that takes away some of the unpleasant aspects of their illness,” he says.
For instance, a patient living on Martha’s Vineyard who needs daily treatment in Hyannis could spend three hours getting from point-to-point. Once the patient arrives at the airport, an Angel Flight NE pilot can get him/her there in 10 minutes, saving time and alleviating the stress of travel. Angel Flight NE has provided air transportation to medical facilities for nearly 60,000 patients ages 3 months to 91 years, averages about 5,000 flights a year, and has flown more than 9 million miles.
Angel Flight Northeast’s Mission
In 1996, retired businessman Larry Camerlin and retired Winchester Hospital CEO Gene Loubier founded Angel Flight NE in order to provide free transportation for children and adults who needed lifesaving medical care. Angel Flight NE’s services are available to anyone for whom travel by commercial airlines is cost-prohibitive, or whose medical condition makes auto travel impossible. Patients must be medically stable and ambulatory. They are allowed to bring a support person with them.
Angel Flight NE also provides flights for people needing to visit critically ill family members, children attending medical camps, and the terminally ill. The organization is part of the Air Charity Network, which provides “access for people in need seeking free air transportation to specialized health care facilities or distant destinations due to family, community or national crisis.” Although Angel Flight NE primarily provides service to patients who live in the northeastern United States, it arranges flights throughout the country, utilizing both large airports and remote landing strips.
At the organization’s headquarters in North Andover, Paula Strasser and Carolyn Bartholomew spend long hours each week coordinating an average of 100 flights. They talk to and screen patients, and contact volunteer pilots. Some trips are complicated, involving numerous airports. Some patients require frequent travel for ongoing treatment. Strasser and Bartholomew also reassure passengers who may not have flown in a small aircraft or are anxious about upcoming treatment or surgery.
“We’re here to get people the help they need in their quest to get their health back,” Strasser says. “What we do can make such a difference in people’s lives.”
Both women say it’s easy to become attached to patient passengers, especially the numerous children they’ve worked with who have life-threatening diseases. According to Dick Sundell, flight operations at Angel Flight NE, about 40 percent of their passengers are children dealing with burns, cancer or other serious illness.
“The success stories keep us going,” Bartholomew says. “We had a baby girl with a club foot who had to fly from Maine to Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, Mass., every other week for six months. It was wonderful to hear from her family that the surgery was successful.”
“The hardest part of this job is the people we can’t help,” Strasser says, explaining that some patients need 24/7 medical care or are not ambulatory.
When volunteer pilots are not available, Strasser and Bartholomew turn to corporate sponsors such as JetBlue, Cape Air and US Airways Express, which offer flight passes to help patients get the care they need.
Strasser and Bartholomew also coordinate the complicated transportation that’s needed to get harvested organs to hospitals where patients are waiting for heart, kidney, lung, liver, pancreas or tissue transplants. A kidney obtained in St. Louis might be destined for a patient in Lebanon, N.H. An Angel Flight NE pilot from Massachusetts flies to Pittsburgh, where another pilot, in from St. Louis, awaits. The cooler containing the kidney is exchanged, and it’s soon on its way to Lebanon.
Angel Flight NE also responds to disasters. After 9/11, they were the first nonmilitary flights in the air, transporting booties for the rescue dogs working at ground zero. Angel Flight NE helped out after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, transporting relief workers, emergency personnel, blood and other supplies. Angel Flight NE also offers compassion flights, in one case flying two children to a distant military hospital where their mother was dying.
Bill Flanagan was intrigued when he first heard about Angel Flight NE five years ago. Flanagan had retired from his post as a contract administrator at the Lowell Housing Authority and had time to give. He went to the Lawrence Municipal Airport to meet the Angel Flight NE staff and was impressed. “God love those people at Angel Flight Northeast because they certainly are angels of mercy,” he says.
Flanagan volunteered as an Earth Angel, a role in which he picks up patients and drives them from airport to hospital, hospital to hotel, or wherever their treatment requires them to go.
“There is such satisfaction in reaching out a hand to someone in their time of need,” Flanagan says. “Being an Earth Angel is an easy way to help.”
Appreciation for Life
Holmes, the pilot from North Andover, remembers a bright young girl who died of cancer nine months after her Angel Flight NE with him. “Her death really brought home the reality of what this is all about,” he says. “I don’t always know specifics of the passenger’s situation, but
I get an appreciation for what they have to go through and have a better appreciation for my own life.”
[ Updated 4/1/20 ] Here’s a message from Larry Camerlin Founder and President of Angel Flight NE >>>
For more information:
Angel Flight Northeast