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Peer Perspectives

The Benefits of Working With Compassion Flight Organizations

By Ellen Williams

The costs of travel, in addition to the expenses for ongoing medical care or treatment, often put a tremendous burden on patients and their families. Social workers frequently act as the primary resource helping clients who require transportation for medical treatment—coordinating care, answering questions, and even assisting families in addressing the complexities of related travel.

Barbara McLain, LCSW, of Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, New York, experienced this firsthand with one of her patients. After years of treatment for a brain tumor, McLain’s patient J.R. relapsed, and his neurosurgeons determined the best course of action was to have him undergo further treatment in Tennessee. Along with absorbing this devastating news and related financial burden, J.R. lacked the necessary documentation to take a commercial flight. J.R. and his family faced the prospect of a lengthy bus trip from New York to Tennessee that had the potential to cause health complications and a high level of discomfort due to his recent surgeries and the time required for that travel.

Seemingly out of options, McLain reached out to Angel Flight East (AFE), a nonprofit compassion flight organization based in the greater Philadelphia area that serves the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States. McLain was previously introduced to AFE through Camp Sunshine, an organization that helps individuals dealing with pediatric cancer.

Throughout the country, compassion flight organizations such as AFE provide free air travel to ambulatory and medically stable individuals who require crucial medical care but lack the financial means to travel. These flights are funded by general aviation volunteer pilots, who donate their own resources—including planes and fuel—to render these services. McLain coordinated with AFE, which worked with their counterparts at Aviation Angels of Hope in Illinois, and J.R. and his father promptly flew to Tennessee without the expense and burden of the cost of travel.

This is one example of the mutually beneficial relationship between compassion flight organizations and social workers. By reaching out to AFE, McLain secured a flight for J.R. and went above and beyond to help him and his family.

“Without a doubt, working with compassion flight organizations has enabled me to assist patients, their families, and the medical professionals coordinating care,” McLain says. “Patients and their families are already under extreme stress. It helps when I am confident that with AFE and other compassion flight organizations, the task will be completed safely and efficiently.”

As the executive director of AFE, I’ve seen countless stories like J.R.’s. When no other option seems feasible, we have the unique ability to resolve expensive transportation issues in a timely fashion. The goal is to help every possible patient and family that needs us. The main obstacle to this, however, is making these families and social workers aware that our services exist. With more visibility, AFE and other compassion flight organizations will eventually be able to achieve this goal.

Jeanine Chambers, executive director at Angel Flight Soars, a compassion flight organization based in Atlanta, says compassion flight organizations are only reaching a fraction of those in need because people are unaware such organizations are an available option. She says one of the main ways to achieve a higher level of visibility is through education. “Our strategy is simple,” Chambers says. “We strongly believe that we can, through outreach and education in the community and with medical facilities and personnel, have a positive impact on a larger number of patients and their families.”

The focus of this education needs to be on medical personnel and social workers who are caring for patients daily. If an unfortunate situation arises where a patient must travel for medical care but can’t afford it, the ability to turn to compassion flight organizations for help would be invaluable. To remedy this, compassion flight organizations are increasingly reaching out to as many major hospital centers and medical programs as possible.

In turn, social workers can benefit and help those in need of vital medical treatment by educating their peers on compassion flight organizations. Shannon Swope, MSS, LSW, of Children’s Specialized Hospital, a provider of inpatient and outpatient care for patients from birth to age 21, says networking within the medical system is a great way to spread the mission of compassion flight organizations and that it would be beneficial to all concerned. “Social workers in the medical field would certainly benefit if they knew about these organizations,” Swope says. “Until I experienced one of these situations firsthand and did my research, I had no idea Angel Flight East existed. It’s something social workers should be talking about more.”

Swope also believes that one of the most important facts social workers need to consider about compassion flight organizations is the simplicity of organizing these flights for their clients. As the liaison between one of her clients and AFE, Swope was concerned completing forms and having a flight approved would be a difficult task. “You would think that the process itself would be grueling,” Swope says. “It turns out the paperwork is simple, and Angel Flight East had a flight coordinated for one of my patients in no time.”

Compassion flight programs provide easy, coordinated modes of transportation that help those in need of medical treatment avoid the cumbersome and often lengthy process of commercial travel. Working with one of our volunteer pilots and coordinating an effort to transport a patient is much less complicated than it seems, and in almost every instance, these missions go on without a hitch.

The transportation itself is the most important aspect of the missions, but they often provide another benefit for the patient: relationships with the volunteer pilots. Annette Fisher, mission coordinator at LifeLine Pilots in Illinois, has organized flights for patients who often must travel regularly for treatment. In many instances, after a patient starts taking flights they become familiar and comfortable with the pilots. “Some of our patients have to fly for treatment every two weeks,” Fisher says. “As the pilot and patient get to know each other, they often build a connection—so much so that pilots often come directly to our organization and request the patient they’ve been bonding with.”

The good news for those unfamiliar with compassion flight organizations—and there are many such organizations throughout the country—is a previously unknown and valuable resource is available. Equally welcome is the fact that social workers do not have to add to their work or serve as travel agents to benefit clients. For those social workers with clients who require medical travel but lack the necessary resources to pay, compassion flight organizations offer flight coordination, available planes, and compassionate pilots to meet those needs. One e-mail or phone call can make all the difference to your clients.

Compassion flight organizations from around the country include the following:

Angel Flight Central
Based in Missouri

Angel Flight East
Based in Pennsylvania

Angel Flight Oklahoma
Based in Oklahoma

Angel Flight Soars
Based in Georgia

Aviation Angels of Hope
Based in Illinois

LifeLine Pilots
Based in Illinois

Patient AirLift Services (PALS)
Based in New York

Pilots for Christ
Based in Michigan

Pilots for Patients
Based in Louisiana

Vital Flight
Based in Florida

Volunteer Pilots Association
Based in Pennsylvania

Wings of Mercy
Based in Michigan

— Ellen Williams is executive director of Angel Flight East, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Angel Flight East is dedicated to serving the community by facilitating free air transportation for children and adults with medical conditions who need to get to treatment far from home.