Passenger Stories

Pilots Literally Save Lives Through Special Transplant Missions

Story by Jim Brown

The images and impact will be remembered for a long time to come. Following the deadly storms, Angel Flight™ Southeast coordinated 762 missions of mercy specifically for hurricane response – to move desperately needed supplies and relief personnel in to the most devastated areas — and evacuated families out to be reunited with relatives beyond the disaster zone.

The valiant efforts of volunteer pilots and Earth Angels brought the six regions of Angel Flight America closer together in spirit and heart than they had ever been before.

Together, their teams in the air, at the operations offices, and at disaster relief sites often Sebastian, Florida resident Nellie will never forget the night of December 9, 1998.

That night he was rushed to the hospital for what he and his wife were initially told was a gall bladder infection. After surgical efforts to remove it, however, his body began bleeding internally. Once more, he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C.

That’s the last battle he thought he would ever have to face. “I used to work out all the time,” Nellie said. “Suddenly it just happened, and I found myself immediately on the transplant list for a new liver.”

“There were times that I was on 14 prescriptions a day, trying to detox my system,” Nellie said.

Nellie joined the thousands of people each year who search, often in vain, for a replacement liver – and often wait years in the process. A large percentage of those people, unfortunately die before a suitable liver is found. Nellie waited six and a half years before finding one – from a 17-year-old boy who was tragically injured in an automobile accident in South Florida and later died.

However, when life ends, sometimes life begins anew – and Angel Flight™ Southeast (AFSE) helps further that process. As Nellie searched for a place in the U.S. where he might be able to find a new liver, he discovered AFSE through contacts at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

It took more than a half dozen air missions – and sometimes he got all the way to the surgical prep table before being told that an organ suddenly became unusable – but he never gave up.

Somehow he survived over that long period. And he and the many other successful transplant recipients who are carried and comforted by Angel Flight™ Southeast pilots to their point of transplant are grateful for every effort undertaken on their behalf.

“Every single one of the pilots was an Angel,” Nellie said. “I asked them lots of questions while flying, and all of them were very kind and informative.”

In 2006, Angel FlightTM Southeast has already helped save nearly a dozen lives by providing free air transportation to and from medical transplant locations. And there currently are more than 100 people in their transplant program.

That program, according to Angel Flight™ Southeast Director of Operations, Sheri Hutchinson, requires a special kind of pilot to be ready on a moment’s notice to get prepared to fly a transplant candidate. Ironically, even though the transplant flight itself is often arranged at last minute, there are many details that are worked out in advance.

“When a candidate for transplant signs up with us, we try to provide a roster of no less than five pilots,” Sheri said, “and up to 15. Sometimes these pilots are out the door – often in the middle of the night – and in the air with a passenger within an hour. That’s absolutely necessary because some organs – hearts, for example – may be useless within three hours. We rely a great deal on these special aviators to be ready and willing – often waking up from a dead sleep – to give these people a new chance at life.”

Pilots who are interested in participating in the Transplant Program can call Angel Flight™ Southeast at 352-326-0761.

Candidates for organ transplants should have their transplant coordinator or social worker call 1-800-352-4256 to make the necessary pre-flight mission arrangements.