Seniors in medical need get flights of kindness

Bob Proctor and his wife, Lee, right, live north of Spirit Lake and have to travel often to Seattle for his regular cancer treatments and follow-up doctor visits. They tried driving but with health and weather, that got to be overwhelming, so they started booking on Alaska Airlines. When that became cost-prohibitive, they learned about the nonprofit Angel Flight West, where volunteer pilots in small aircraft take patients at no cost. The Proctors traveled Dec. 13 over to Seattle with Norris Brown, left, a pilot who lives in Spokane Valley. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review/TNS)
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Bob Proctor and his wife, Lee, right, live north of Spirit Lake and have to travel often to Seattle for his regular cancer treatments and follow-up doctor visits. They tried driving but with health and weather, that got to be overwhelming, so they started booking on Alaska Airlines. When that became cost-prohibitive, they learned about the nonprofit Angel Flight West, where volunteer pilots in small aircraft take patients at no cost. The Proctors traveled Dec. 13 over to Seattle with Norris Brown, left, a pilot who lives in Spokane Valley. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review/TNS)

SPOKANE, Wash. — For the past two years, cancer patient Bob Proctor has traveled between his rural North Idaho home and Seattle for treatments. Some frights in that journey haven’t all come from stage 4 kidney cancer.

Rather, Proctor describes scares from slick roads and close encounters with big trucks when he and his wife, Lee, drove for eight hours one-way. Proctor was diagnosed in October 2014, and entered clinical trials soon after at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where he also has had regular chemo treatments.

“You get done with an infusion, and you don’t feel real good, so the last thing you want to do is jump on I-90 eastbound over Snoqualmie Pass with half a gazillion crazed 18-wheelers and me in a Subaru,” Proctor said.

“You throw in winter weather and crazies on slick roads, and it’s really something I don’t want to undertake.”

So Proctor, 63, decided to fly.

He booked with Alaska Airlines for medical visits typically three weeks apart, but that proved costly and overwhelming, until Nov. 10. That’s when Proctor called Angel Flight West, a nonprofit arranging free flights on small private planes for medical hardship or other humanitarian reasons.

Started in 1983, Angel Flight West is based in Santa Monica, California, and now offers air transport missions in 13 Western states including Washington.

The real lift under the nonprofit’s wings are volunteer pilots who donate their small aircraft, time and fuel for the transports, including Spokane Valley resident Norris Brown, 71. A longtime pilot, Brown on Dec. 13 flew Proctor and his wife to Seattle for a medical appointment in a co-owned Cessna P210.

“The reason I do this is two-fold,” said Brown, a retiree from Kaiser Aluminum. “One, it’s a reason to give back something to the community and, two, it’s a good excuse to fly. People we fly have been vetted that they need help with transportation, so I don’t even ask about it.”

The nonprofit typically needs at least a week’s notice to arrange travel and will help for other humanitarian reasons, such as when a survivor of domestic violence seeks relocation, or someone needs to visit a terminally ill relative.

Other flights can take children to a burn or cancer camp in the summer, or an injured military member to a therapeutic program.

“We arrange free air transportation in small private planes, so most of them are four- to six-seat airplanes,” said Cheri Cimmarrusti, the group’s associate executive director. “There has got to be a compelling reason for them traveling. Most frequently it’s medical.”

The nonprofit serves in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Because the flights are free, a passenger’s financial need is considered but that involves some flexiblity, Cimmarrusti said.

The nonprofit also requests that passengers have mobility to get into an aircraft, and that they be medically stable. Regionally, it also handles requests from rural Montana residents who need medical transport to Spokane or Seattle, Cimmarrusti said.

The same bad weather that stalls road travel can cause pilots to cancel scheduled transports, so people should have a backup plan, Cimmarrusti added.

“The drawback is that these are small private planes, and they’re flown by volunteers,” she said. “There can be a situation where we might not find a volunteer. That doesn’t happen often, though.”

Denton’s role with Angel Flight West also includes working with others to recruit pilots and inform medical providers about its service. Pilots aren’t required to fly a certain number of missions, Denton said. Last year, she only flew one passenger but has piloted about 50 trips since 1998.

Pilots can join online and complete a short nonprofit orientation, including some safety information.

Many years back, she flew two women on different trips from Montana to cancer treatments in Coeur d’Alene. Denton still remembers their thankful responses.

“Normally, they would drive in for three days of treatments and drive home for about a 17-hour round trip,” Denton said. “Once they found out about Angel Flight, we could pick them up in a two-hour flight to Coeur d’Alene. They could relax and look at the scenery below.”

For Proctor, the recent trip in Brown’s Cessna was like an early Christmas gift. He had just spent a week in the hospital for knee surgery, after removal of a lesion because cancer had spread to his tibia.

Proctor continues to stay in touch with the Angel Flight West volunteers he’s met.

“They’re wonderful people,” he said. “We’ve exchanged emails and calls, and just become wonderful friends in the process. It’s an unexpected benefit.”


ANGEL FLIGHT WEST

Phone: (888) 426-2643

Website: www.angelflightwest.org

email: info@angelflightwest.org

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