And the problem is double-edged: Researchers developing new treatments don't always have enough patients to try them on. At the University of Florida in Gainesville, for example, scientists are testing a new treatment for a disease called congenital lactic acidosis. The condition, which afflicts about 500 children in the United States every year, causes an abnormal buildup of lactic acid in the blood and spinal fluid, resulting in neurological, cognitive, motor, and muscular problems. There is no cure, and those who have it do not live beyond their teens. Researchers at Gainesville are testing a drug called dichloroacetate, and they need patients who can come to the university 10 times over a two-year period. The patients come from as far away as New Zealand. A volunteer pilot organization called Mercy Medical Airlift, based in Hampton Roads, Virginia, has been organizing free transportation--either through other volunteer groups or through free- and discount-ticket programs offered by the airlines.
Unfortunately, information about volunteer transportation services can be as hard to find as information about a rare medical condition. Some groups have made themselves known by contacting nearby hospitals; others have benefited from coverage by local newspapers and TV news programs. And of course many groups now have Web sites. Still, a lot of patients who could use the services aren't aware of them.
Part of the problem, says Mercy Medical Airlift executive director Ed Boyer, is that "no one is in charge of the system." Most of the groups operate independently. For example, Angel Flight Northeast and Angel Flight West share the same name, but they have their own staffs, pilots, and protocols. If some of the groups were to merge, they might be able to consolidate publicity and outreach efforts.
Boyer learned about the transportation problems particular to medical patients in the mid-1970s. Back then he was a partner in a Beech A-36 Bonanza, and a friend asked him to help out a cancer patient who needed to travel from Virginia to New York City for treatment. More patients followed, and other pilots joined in to help, but it was not until 1984 that the group formally incorporated as Mercy Medical Airlift.
Around the same time, on the opposite side of the country, California businessman Tom Goodwin was out flying his Piper Archer one day when it occurred to him that there seemed to be more pilots sitting around thinking about flying than actually getting in the air. "There's a lot of manpower and a lot of machinery that could be put to some good use," Goodwin recalls thinking. "Then it came to me."
Goodwin had been reading about the then-new field of organ transplantation and the urgency of transferring donated organs. "Heck, I can do that," he recalls saying. "I started asking around to see if anybody'd be interested in doing something to help in some way. And it slowly evolved." When he began, Goodwin was running his own printing company and flying as a recreational pilot. In 1984 he gave up his day job to run AirLifeLine. "Oh, I flew doctors to Mexico for eye surgery, we flew for the blood banks, the eye and tissue bank," he says. "We were there to help anybody." From a close circle of 10 or so friends, Goodwin says, the group now has more than a thousand pilots nationwide.
Boyer and Goodwin wouldn't meet each other for several years, but in the meantime other groups around the country sprang up, some after hearing about Boyer's and Goodwin's efforts. Many would seek one or the other's advice on how to organize their charity, recruit pilots, and avoid problems with the Federal Aviation Administration. As a result, many of the groups flying patients are modeled after those founded by Boyer and Goodwin.
Take Angel Flight Northeast, the group I fly for. It was started by Larry Camerlin, a former Franciscan friar who, after leaving the priesthood, got married and started an ambulance service in Massachusetts. In 1994, after 12 years of growing the business, Camerlin sold it. He then pursued a lifelong interest in flying and started taking lessons, getting his license in 1996. While deciding what next to do, Camerlin read an article about an Angel Flight West pilot in California and was so moved he called up and said he wanted to fly for the group. When he learned that there was no similar organization in New England, Camerlin, with his background in the ministry, health care, business, and aviation, decided he was the man to start one.
Camerlin rounded up a handful of pilots, mostly flight instructors eager to fly, for a meeting in the basement of the Beverly Municipal Airport in Massachusetts. From those beginnings, Angel Flight Northeast has grown to more than 500 volunteer pilots, most of whom learned about the organization from other pilots, news items, or the Internet.
Today, more than 4,500 pilots are now volunteering their services across the country; they have flown more than 45,000 patients a total of 28 million nautical miles. Not bad for what started out as a handful of well-intentioned pilots in need of a good excuse to fly.