Pilots for AirLifeLine Donate Flights to Patients in Need

Oncology NEWS International Vol 5 No 6, Volume 5, Issue 6

It used to take Mike Natishak, Sr., his wife Mary Alice, and their 9-year-old son Mike Jr., 6 hours to make the weekly drive from their home in Apalachin, NY, to Boston Children's Hospital. They had to stay over at a hotel to be at the hospital the next morning. So in addition to travel expenses, the Natishaks each lost 2 days of work.

It used to take Mike Natishak, Sr., his wife Mary Alice, and their9-year-old son Mike Jr., 6 hours to make the weekly drive fromtheir home in Apalachin, NY, to Boston Children's Hospital. Theyhad to stay over at a hotel to be at the hospital the next morning.So in addition to travel expenses, the Natishaks each lost 2 daysof work.

The driving conditions were bad when they drove over the mountainsin winter. Still, they had to make the drive. Mike Jr. had Wegener'sgranulomatosis and had recently received a new kidney, donatedby his father. After the transplant, Mike Jr. needed weekly follow-upvisits at the hospital, and the family couldn't afford to fly.

Then some pilots stepped in to give the Natishaks a lift to thehospital for the weekly visits, and things got a lot easier forthe family. The pilots belonged to AirLifeLine, a national networkof private pilots who volunteer their time, planes, fuel, andmoney to fly financially strapped patients to far off life-sustainingmedical treatment. There are no charges to the patients.

Majority Have Cancer

AirLifeLine does not limit its services to a specific age groupor diagnosis, but the majority of the patients have cancer. Somepeople have ridden with AirLifeLine once or twice a month foryears; others just a few times.

Some of the pilots are commercial pilots; others are engineers,doctors, lawyers, or business people. They fly within their owngeographical areas up to 900 nautical miles, although the averageflight is usually between 250 and 300 miles.

Most of the appointments are scheduled, but they also fly stand-bymissions, to carry patients quickly to distant hospitals whena donor organ becomes available or to transport the organ itself.

And they are still flying Mike Natishak and his son to their appointmentsin Boston, which are now down to every 3 months. The Natishaksget picked up at an airport in Binghamton, NY, and in an hourthey are in Boston.

"AirLifeLine was a Godsend," Mike Sr., said in an interviewwith Oncology News International. "Instead of something Idreaded, the trip is like a little adventure. Sometimes the cloudslook like big white mountains; it's almost magical. My son alsogets a lot of excitement from the flight."

For the pilots, it's an opportunity to do what they love--flyand help people at the same time--and it doesn't take long forbonds to develop. Jon Wurtzburger is a stockbroker at the NewYork Stock Exchange, acting president of AirLifeLine, and oneof the many pilots who has flown the Nitishaks. "I have gottenvery close to the family," Mr. Wurtzburger says.

AirLifeLine was founded in 1978 by Tom Goodwin, a Sacramento businessmanand pilot, to provide transport of time-critical medical cargo.In 1984, the service was expanded to meet the needs of ambulatorypatients requiring medical travel they could not afford. It nowincludes a network of more than 800 pilots nationwide.

Since its inception, AirLifeLine has flown nearly 10,000 missionsand 5 million air miles, and last year flew 1,674 missions. Itoperates 365 days a year within the United States, including Alaskaand Hawaii.

To be eligible, patients have to show that they cannot affordcommercial airplane tickets and must document their medical situation.They must be medically stable, able to walk onto the plane, andable to tolerate flying in unpressur-ized conditions.

The small planes that AirLifeLine pilots fly are not pressurizedfor flights over 8,000 to 9,000 feet, but sometimes they do flyhigher. The patients may bring oxygen, but otherwise there isno medical equipment aboard the planes.

AirLifeLine receives support from the Ronald McDonald House Charitiesand other corporations and individuals. The bulk of a recent grant($75,000) from the Ronald McDonald House Charities is being usedto inform hospitals, doctors, and social workers about the service.

AirLifeLine in turn is helping out the Ronald McDonald House Charitiesby providing transportation to some of the children who stay intheir houses during treatment. "The sad part," Mr. Wurtz-burgersays, "is that so few patients know about AirLifeLine. TheRonald McDonald grant should help us get the word out."

Once Mr. Wurtzburger had wanted to be a doctor. Now he has gotteninto medicine through the backdoor, he jokes, both as a memberof the Board of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and as apilot for AirLifeLine.

Plane Has Club Seating

On the days he has a mission, Mr. Wurtzburger calls ahead to theairport from the New York Stock Exchange, files a flight plan,has his plane taken out of the hanger, and then drives to theTeterboro Airport in New Jersey, where his Prop/Jet Bonanza awaits.

The plane has club seating in back be-cause Mr. Wurtzburger boughtit with his AirLifeLine passengers in mind. This arrangement,with seats facing each other, allows more room for boarding anda more relaxed setting for the flight.

"You're hoping and praying that their therapy is going towork out," he says. "To see them lose the battle, it'slike you're losing the battle. It gets tough. I've flown peopleI know aren't going to make it, and the worst is when it's a child."