Angel Flight Southeast CEO and volunteer pilot Steve Purello remembers the urgency in the voice on the phone — a double-lung transplant patient in Miami who needed to get to Gainesville quickly because his body was rejecting the organs.
“If I don’t get up there, I am not going to make it through the night,” the man said.
Purello, 46, didn’t waste any time. He grabbed his four-legged co-pilot, his beloved Labrador Border Mitsy, and flew to Miami.
“He wound up with a 106-degree fever and was convulsing, but I got him there,” Purello recalled. “And on Monday morning I got a call from him saying, ‘Thank you very much for saving my life.’”
Angel Flight Southeast provides chronically ill passengers with free transportation to their medical appointments when commercial flights are too costly or unavailable. Purello said the organization relies on a network of about 650 pilots who volunteer their time and services and use their own personal planes.
“This is somebody that if they are not treated, they will die in the next few months,” he said of the passengers. “And they are not just going to go to the hospital once, they’ve got to go 10, 20, 30 or 50 times. … A lot of people don’t know about Angel Flight. We are there if they need to go a long distance for medical help, or if they get an unusual disease and their local doctors tell them that there is no cure for what they have within hundreds of miles … we are able to provide transportation for them.”
Headquartered at Leesburg International Airport, Purello said Angel Flight Southeast has been an “incredible” experience.
“The appreciation of our passengers is unbelievable. Every day we are at least making their lives more comfortable and a lot of days we are saving people’s lives by doing this, when they have no other options,” he said.
Some passengers relying on Angel Flight live in Lake County and require surgeries or doctor visits with specialists in other states.
“We have had a number of babies born with crooked skulls and when that happens, they make a helmet for them and there are only a few places in the country that specialize in this,” Purello said. “The helmet forces the skull to grow in the proper way, and it is happening so rapidly that they need adjustments every week.”
Angel Flight also has come to the aid of a mother in the Panhandle who was driving her baby daughter 570 miles down to Miami for one of the helmets.
“The mother broke down a couple of times in the Everglades and then she found out about us,” he said, recalling the child was flown to Miami every week for a year.
“We have a list of about three dozen people who are waiting for a heart, a liver, a kidney, a lung or maybe two lungs, and that can happen in the middle of the night,” Purello said.
“So that phone call is, ‘We have this heart that is ready, but you only have three hours to get that person here.’ Otherwise, they don’t get it, even though they have waited now for the last year to get this organ.”
Angel Flight Southeast coordinates flights for people who live in Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.
“Moffitt is our No. 1 destination in Tampa, the third largest cancer center in the U.S.,” he said. “Basically, when they (doctors) can’t figure out how to treat you anymore, and maybe you’re getting to stage 4 cancer and that is where they are going to send you, to Moffitt, and they work miracles all the time.”
Flights for passengers who require travel of greater distances often are split into shorter segments requiring multiple pilots.
Purello first learned about Angel Flight when he was making frequent trips to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for dinner outings and enjoying his pilot’s license.
He saw a brochure for Angel Flight with a child on the cover.
“I realized that I could be doing something more with my license than just going to get dinner in Nantucket for the night,” Purello said.
passengers as they pet her in the back seat.
“They definitely love having her there,” he said.
The CEO aspires to have more volunteer pilots get involved with Angel Flight.
“Approximately one-third of our pilots are retired, which the other two-thirds take time from work. These are doctors, lawyers, business owners,” he said. “They take that one day off from work because these flights take place generally during the week. They become very committed to it and very passionate about it. They love to fly, so it is a good excuse to fly and to give back.”
Angel Flight also relies on donations to pay for its services, and the charity will host its 18th annual golf tournament fundraiser on Nov. 11 at Arlington Ridge in Leesburg. For information, go www.angelflightse.org/events.