David R. Meldrum, MD
Angel Flight is an organization of volunteer pilots who fly patients with serious diseases from small places to large medical centers like UCLA, USC, or Stanford. For someone to make repeated visits from a small town requires either a very long drive or often multiple flights. They are not acutely ill, but might not be able to tolerate a simple flu bug due to their weakened condition or chemotherapy. We can have them drive a short distance to a local airport, hopping on very shortly after arriving, and in a couple of hours they’ll be at Santa Monica (for UCLA) or Palo Alto (for Stanford), leaving them a short drive to the medical center, sometimes provided by an “earth angel” volunteer. We’ve often had patients tell us they simply would not have been able to avail themselves of treatment because of their limited financial resources.
Dustin is a good example – a wonderful little guy with spina bifida (now a teenager), where the associated disruption of spinal nerves leaves them with an awkward swaying gait supported by crutches. In this photo Justin had recently had surgery on his knees to allow him more mobility. Just after the picture was taken, he raced across the tarmac to show us how well he could get around. I’m holding a small bottle of sunscreen. I’d been talking to my co-pilot about how I often forget to put on sunscreen, which is important for pilots because of the increased ultraviolet light at altitude. Dustin piped up behind us “why don’t you just keep some in your flight bag”. I have ever since. So often people fail to do simple things that are important for health and it just takes one further reminder. I hope this web site does the same.
Some missions because of their length would require 2 or three different pilots and stops along the way, which can be difficult for some chronically ill passengers to tolerate. For about 12 years out of my 18 years flying for angel flight I piloted a citation and later an eclipsejet shown here, allowing us to do those missions in a single hop. The eclipsejet was single pilot, which made scheduling much easier. Together with those longer flights, I flew the equivalent to 5-6 times around the world ferrying angel flight patients.
We have always been struck with how well people and those around them cope with difficult diseases, even when they have little hope of a cure. Another child we’ll never forget was suffering from a rare disease attacking both his lungs and kidneys. He was very small for his age and wore nasal prongs for oxygen during the flight. He and his young parents were an absolute delight. I still have a drawing he did of “pilot Dave”. Unfortunately, he never was able to be in good enough health to tolerate a dual transplant from his father and the last time we saw him he was confined to a wheelchair- but still a delightful ray of sunshine.
Angel flight also flies children and adolescents with serious medical conditions to various camps. The burn camp can be the most heart-rending. We recall a young adolescent who had skin grafts covering his entire head. With these children parents often carry lifelong guilt, feeling there were things they might have done to prevent the catastrophy. The most common are boiling water where a child could reach it, and falls into a campfire. On a much brighter note, we flew a young black adolescent girl to a camp for HIV-infected children who had been adopted by an older white couple. Watching this beautiful, confident, loving teenager with these two parents, we could not tell who had had their lives fulfilled the most.
Angel flight allows patients living in small communities to access new and evolving care opportunities. An example is Bob, who had prostate cancer. Due to his incredibly supportive and proactive wife, Paula, he was flown by us and other AF pilots to the Los Angeles area, resulting in another 5 years of survival when he had been given only months to live. Paula became a good friend of Claudia and me, an Angel Flight volunteer, then a board member, and now more recently we have flown her so she can meet health care challenges of her own.
There was a Time magazine cover story a few years ago on “happiness” research. One of the things the investigators found that contributed in a major way to happiness was helping others. Bill and Melinda Gates and Angelina and Brad are good examples of people who have derived a lot of pleasure from their charitable work, and Claudia and I are no exception. For those of us who have been lucky to be financially successful, helping others less fortunate simply should be a given. Those who consider that their good fortune is all of their own making and not to be shared fail to appreciate their luck of the draw and the circumstances that put them where they are, whether it was inheriting smarts or good looks or initiative, or being brought up in a secure, supportive family. Virtually no one can say that they truly made it on their own. Denying an obligation to help others seems not only misguided, but they are missing out on one of the great pleasures of life!