Arianne Robledo rested her left temple against the window and watched the ground fall away as the plane carrying her climbed toward the morning sun. The single-engine aircraft whined as it rose into the clouds above the empty Wyoming prairie, Robledo’s hometown of Lander shrinking behind her.
The 18-year-old’s first flight on a plane like this was about four years ago. She felt relaxed traveling through the air. But worries still clouded her mind.
There were doctors waiting for her in Colorado.
There were missed classes and a tube in her stomach.
There was the disease attacking her kidneys.
At least her trip to Denver Children’s Hospital was taken care of. Angel Flight West flew Robledo and her mother, Sarah Fessler, that day and many since. The California-based nonprofit connects people like Robledo, who can’t afford regular transportation or are too sick to fly commercially, with private pilots across the west who fly patients to the care they need. The patients and their families pay nothing for the trip.
Robledo remembers falling ill almost overnight when she was 13. She was pale and weak.
“I had to sit down all the time,” Robledo said. For about a year, she underwent a barrage of testing at hospitals in both Denver and Fort Collins. That meant drives that could last up to six hours at least once a month, Fessler said. As a single mother of two, that was gas money she couldn’t afford to spend, and time away from her work and Robledo’s school.
Eventually, Robledo was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder that doctors discovered was attacking her kidneys. She’d visit Fort Washakie Indian Health for dialysis three times a week. Each session would last three hours. Robledo still bears the scars in the crook of her left elbow. And, of course, there were more hospital trips to Colorado, sometimes in dangerous weather. Fessler recalled driving along icy highways strewn with wrecked vehicles.
“It’s not fun driving the interstate for six hours,” Fessler said.
A nurse first told Fessler about Angel Flight. It’s not exactly surprising that they suffered through all those long car trips before learning about the program. One of Angel Flight’s biggest challenges is getting the word out to families like Fessler’s.
“We seem to be the best-kept secret around,” said Cheri Cimmarrusti, associate executive director of Angel Flight West.
The group has actually existed for 30 years. In 1984, its first year, the program flew 15 missions. Today, it boasts about 1,200 active pilots who flew about 3,700 missions last year.
Angel Flight operates through grants, foundations and individual and corporate contributions. The group recruits pilots, who donate their time and fuel. Then it connects those flyers with patients.
“For some of our passengers, it means not going into debt. For some it is truly lifesaving,” Cimmarrusti said. “Without Angel Flight, many would not be able to get their illness treated — whether it’s somebody in a big city, but with a rare disease that’s only treated somewhere else — to the
many, many people in rural areas who just don’t have health care access.”
Pilot John Larsen tipped the plane’s wings starboard as the aircraft made its way toward Centennial, Colorado on a unseasonably cold Saturday in late August. Fessler’s “wow” could be heard over the roar of the engine.
“I’ve never had that view of Elk Mountain before,” she said. Larsen smiled. He’s been flying for 14 years – ever since he came home from church and told his wife he was going to take lessons. He wife rolled her eyes at what she thought was simply a midlife crisis.
He started Angel Flight in 2005. He is one of about eight active pilots in the state, according to Cimmarrusti.
Larsen said he feels blessed to put purpose to his passion.
“I love boring holes in the sky,” Larsen said. “If I’m at all able to make it work, I will.”
Fessler and Robledo have flown with Angel Flight about 10 times during the past four years. Some of those trip were taken with “the suitcase” – a portable dialysis machine Robledo had to take with her everywhere she went – in tow.
“It was upsetting,” Fessler said. “I didn’t even know something like that existed.”
Robledo spent a couple month on the waiting list for a new kidney last year before her mother received a late-night call that a possible match was available.
The surgery, performed at Denver Children’s, was a success. Robledo spent three weeks in the hospital recovering, but she remembers feeling stronger, more like her old self, almost immediately.
Her first real meal after recovering was at Old Chicago’s – an all-meat pizza.
“It made everything feel normal again,” Robledo said.
In March, Robledo celebrated what the family called her first “kidneyversary” with all the foods she couldn’t have while she was ill – cheese, chocolate, cake, oranges. Robledo is a high school senior and plans to attend University of Wyoming, where she’ll study nursing. All the hospital time has left her with the desire to help others.
She still travels to Denver with her mother every few months for checkups. They make the trip through Angel Flight.
Fessler and her daughter are grateful for every single one.
“The pilots really are the angels,” Fessler said.
The plane touched down in Centennial, just southeast of Denver, about an hour after the Elk Mountain flyover. The women pulled one bag each out of the plane. Fessler’s brother was waiting in the terminal for them. He planned to take them to her first Dave and Buster’s excursion.
Robledo just smiled when asked if pizza was in her near future.
“Maybe,” Robledo said, looking at her mother.
With his passengers safely at their destination, Larsen climbed again into the sky, bound for Lander. Another mission accomplished.