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Angel Flight West: For faraway patients, plane trips are just the ticket

by Pat Kramer

May Locke boards a private plane at a tiny airport near her rural Northern California home and heads to Fresno. After a quick stop she changes aircraft, and another pilot flies her to El Monte Airport, where family members drive her the short distance to City of Hope.

She waits in no lines, goes through no time-consuming security checks, the flights are smooth and, in just over three hours, she arrives in Duarte, Calif. The convenience is much-needed, because Locke already has enough on her mind: She travels to City of Hope every month to be treated for breast cancer.

Locke is one of a growing number of City of Hope patients from afar who receive free flights from a group of philanthropic pilots known as Angel Flight West.

“We have been using Angel Flight for many years,” said Nellie Garcia,  M.S.W., director of the Department of Clinical Social Work. “Mostly, it is used by patients who would go without treatment if we did not have the transportation that Angel Flight is able to provide.”

Locke started treatment for metastatic breast cancer in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2004 that she called on Angel Flight. That is when she joined a City of Hope clinical trial that combined GTI-2040 — an investigational antisense oligonucleotide — and capecitabine, which required weekly visits, said Przemyslaw T. Twardowski, M.D., assistant professor of medical oncology. “She lives in a remote area where there is no good commercial connection,” he said. “Without Angel Flight’s help, it would have been impossible for her to participate in the trial, or it would have been very, very expensive.”

Angel Flight West Executive Director Jim Weaver explained that the service provides free, non-emergency flights to people who need specialized medical care but face travel hardships. “The costs for the flights are donated by the licensed pilots who fly the missions in their four-to-six-seater planes, most of which are single-engines,” Weaver said.

Locke was first diagnosed in 1996 and received treatment at a community hospital. When the cancer spread to her bones and liver in 2001, she felt she needed a higher level of care. A friend told her about City of Hope, and Locke began arranging flights on commercial jets for frequent treatment. But travel was hard, resulting in long drives to the airport, layovers and motion sickness, and she ultimately moved in with a niece nearby until she finished treatment.

When her cancer recurred in 2004, Locke decided to give Angel Flight a try.

“The flight coordinator at City of Hope and the pilots are very dependable. They take care of all my arrangements so I don’t have to worry about making my flights,” Locke said.

“Plus, the flights are very smooth. I am able to relax and reserve my energy when I fly to City of Hope for my monthly treatments and I have discovered that I like to fly.”

Garcia noted, “Cancer patients deal with so many stressors while undergoing treatment.  To be able to access this important resource is a win-win situation and hopefully goes a long way in decreasing emotional distress.”

To learn more about Angel Flight, go to: www.angelflight.org or call 888-426-2643. To reach Nellie Garcia, call 626-359-8111 or ext. 62282.