When life looked darkest, Don Griffith says, his “angels” appeared.
“Suddenly, there was a flicker of light,” recalls the 71-year-old Wimer resident.
The “angels” were the pilots who flew Griffith from Medford to Portland for surgery and treatment of advanced esophageal cancer at Oregon Health & Science University.
These Rogue Valley pilots donate their time, aircraft and aeronautical skills to Angel Flight West.
The Santa Monica, California-based nonprofit arranges free nonemergency medical transport utilizing a network of 1,400-plus pilots in 13 western states, including Alaska and Hawaii. A handful of local pilots fly families and individuals who cannot access vital medical treatment or potentially life-saving surgeries because of physical limitations and financial and geographic barriers.
Griffith says the service “has been a godsend.”
A tumor on his esophagus made swallowing painful. Because he couldn’t eat or drink, he lost 100 pounds.
“I was on the road to starving to death,” he says.
Unfortunately, most esophageal cancers do not cause symptoms until they have reached an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat. Griffith’s best hope was an oncologist at OHSU.
Living alone “far out from civilization” with only a broken-down vehicle as transportation, Griffith says “prospects (of getting to OHSU) looked dim to none.”
“When things looked darkest, my angels came through.”
Griffith has flown on a half dozen missions since January. Choking back a flood of emotions during a recent interview, he says AFW “was there when there seemed no other way.”
Although he may have to rely on a feeding tube for the rest of his life, Griffith believes Angel Flight saved his life.
Jeff Blum, a Medford pilot who has flown with AFW for about five years, says his association with the group has been the “best of both worlds.”
“I love flying, and I love a great charitable opportunity,” he says.
He adds that he tries to go on a mission at least once a month.
“Making the flights available (especially to rural residents) is a positive thing,” he says. And while all missions have made a lasting impression on him, the most recent was very poignant.
In late July, Blum flew Stacy Bingham and her three children, Sierra, Lindsay and Gage, from Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in Palo Alto, California, to Klamath Falls. A second pilot flew the final leg to Baker City, the nearest airport to the family’s ranch in Haines.
The Binghams are frequent fliers with AFW. Three of Stacy’s five children struggle with dilated cardiomyopathy. Between them, there have been eight open-heart surgeries and four heart transplants. The youngest, Gage, received his new heart in April.
The challenges of “the last 11 years of health care” include flights to Stanford every three months, Stacy says. The trip in July included followup care for Gage and Lindsay, who has had two heart transplants — the most recent in 2015.
The better part of the last two years has been spent in the Bay Area, Stacy adds.
“We love our Eastern Oregon ranch and the rural lifestyle it affords,” she says. Their insurance, however, does not cover any pediatric cardiac care outside Stanford. Besides, Haines, located in a remote corner of northeastern Oregon, is far removed from cutting-edge cardiac surgery. Reliance on AFW has been critical to her children receiving the best medical care.
And “the pilots are amazing,” she adds.
Shady Cove resident Caroline Robinson agrees.
“The pilots bend over backwards” and are “very gracious,” even when motion sickness brought on by vision impairment and vertigo bring about embarrassing results, she says.
The 60-year-old has been transported on 91 missions off and on since 2002. Suffering from a rare autoimmune disease, she sought treatment from specialists first at OHSU and then at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. In addition, she had a mass removed from her spinal cord in 2012, and underwent 18 procedures over a two-year period to relieve ongoing neurological and orthopedic conditions.
Unable to drive herself to Portland or Seattle, and unable to bear four to eight hours sitting in a car, “AFW has been a lifesaver,” Robinson says.
Pilot Peter Gandesberry, of Ashland, says flying for AFW “gives real purpose” to his hobby.
Gandesberry, who co-owns a Piper Cherokee with three other Rogue Valley pilots, attempts to make the flights an enjoyable diversion for his passengers “who are concerned with bigger problems.”
With their hardship reduced even a little bit, passengers appear to “enjoy the flight even in the most serious situations,” he says.
Medford resident Pam Allyn says a flight in February “was the first fun” she has had since she was diagnosed last year with multiple myeloma.
The pilot handed over the controls for a minute as the plane approached Medford.
“It was very exciting,” she says. “I was told to aim for a cloud ahead, and for a little while I could take my mind off the awful, shocking, terrible diagnosis.”
A rare aggressive cancer, multiple myeloma attacks the plasma cells — a type of white blood cell — in bone marrow and renders the body’s immune system helpless in the wake of infection.
The disease primarily strikes patients older than 65.
“The diagnosis was pretty rough” to take, the 57-year-old Allyn says.
Before stem-cell transplant surgery in early June, she flew back and forth from Medford to OHSU for five months of chemotherapy. Because of Allyn's compromised immune system, a commercial flight was too risky.
During a recent phone interview, Allyn was waiting to fly back home from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Angel Flight was arranging the flight. After two months away from home, she was overcome with gratitude.
“In every way, this has been a hardship … physically and financially,” she says. “AFW has been a huge help.”
While there is no cure for multiple myeloma, the stem-cell transplant buys Allyn time. Angel Flight will fly her back to OHSU for a follow-up in October. She hopes to hear that the disease is in remission.
One of Gandesberry’s partners, Chris Adams, feels privileged to be a part of AFW.
“It’s admirable what Angel Flight is doing,” he says.
Adams, who has logged 30 years of flying time and served 20 years in the Civil Air Patrol, still remembers his first mission for AFW last September.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he recalls.
That mission happened to be one of the Binghams' frequent flights to Palo Alto.
He was moved by their “incredible story.”
Having the capability to help folks like the Binghams “with the burden of unforeseen circumstances gave intrinsic value,” he says, to what he and Gandesberry see as a purely recreational endeavor on any other day of the week.
Allyn, like Griffin, has a difficult time talking about her ordeal, but says she is hopeful that sharing her story will prompt other pilots to volunteer to be “angels.”
To inquire about how to volunteer or the criteria necessary to qualify for an Angel Flight, go to www.angelflightwest.org or call 1-888-426-2643.
— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at firstname.lastname@example.org.