Eight years ago, Yvonne Tallini of Baldwinsville was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a neurological condition that can cause even the lightest touches to be painful.
“You’re always in pain because the parts of your spinal cord that say you’re not supposed to be in pain stop working,” Tallini explained. “The pain becomes a disease itself.”
Thanks to infusions of lidocaine and ketamine, Tallini is able to take the edge off her pain — “It works for me: I don’t pray for someone to cut off my legs,” she said — but she must travel to the Vincera Institute in Philadelphia every eight weeks. Nerve damage from CRPS prevents Tallini from making the trip by car, as she cannot sit for long periods of time.
That’s where Angel Flight East comes in.
Having assisted in relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, pilot Harry Morales founded Angel Flight East in 1993. AFE is a nonprofit organization based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, that offers free air transportation to people who must travel long distances for chemotherapy, burn treatment or other medical care but cannot afford it.
AFE also occasionally provides “compassion flights,” flying loved ones to visit an ill relative or to attend a funeral.
A healthcare provider must sign off on a flight request, verifying that the patient has a compelling need and is medically stable enough to fly sitting upright. Patients must also prove that traveling for treatment is a financial hardship.
Tallini used to receive treatment at a pain clinic in Rochester, but the clinic could not offer large enough doses of the medication she needed. The lidocaine and ketamine infusions she needs, which are expensive, are not available in the Syracuse area.
“I go to Philadelphia because they’re one of the leaders in diagnostic treatment in complex regional pain syndrome. They are starting to offer [new] treatments,” Tallini said. “Fortunately, Medicare covers this … but most insurances will not cover ketamine infusion. It’s an expensive disease to have.”
On top of her medical expenses, traveling for treatment can be costly for Tallini and her mother, who accompanies her to her infusions. A commercial flight would cost $600 per person. Sometimes, if an Angel Flight pilot must cancel because of the weather, Tallini and her mom take the bus. At $100 per person, the bus is much cheaper than flying, but Tallini is thankful for AFE.
“They’ve been a financial lifesaver for me because I have very large medical bills,” Tallini said. “I’m very thankful for them.”
Pilots give back
There are similar volunteer pilot organizations all over the country; the area AFE serves is a rough triangle from Maine to Virginia to Ohio. While AFE completed 17 flights in its first year, now the organization’s pilots make between 600 and 800 flights a year. There are 400 volunteer pilots on AFE’s roster, 150 of whom are active.
Pilots must have a private pilot’s license, be qualified in instrument rating (flying a plane using only instruments in case of poor visibility) and have logged 300 hours of flight time. AFE pilots supply their own planes and donate their time and fuel.
David Stagnitti of Hoosick, New York, has been an AFE volunteer pilot for five or six years. His plane, a Cessna 182 Skylane that seats four people, is stationed in Albany.
“I just like the fact that it’s a way the pilot community can give back in a way that directly touches the patients who need our services,” Stagnitti said. “We get to meet the patients and spend time with them.”
Stagnitti, whose day job is vice president of corporate accounts for Genworth Financial, said his company provides employees with 40 hours per year to devote to volunteering.
“It’s actually fantastic,” he said. “Weekends are taking a lot of time doing things with my children, so the fact that Genworth gives us this time is easier.”
According to Stagnitti, most of his passengers have never been on a small, non-pressurized airplane. Both the pilot and passengers wear headsets.
“They hear me talking to the air traffic controller and I think that puts the patient at ease,” Stagnitti said.
Stagnitti said the pressure changes of ascent and descent are less extreme on such a small plane; passengers experience less ear popping and are able to see more of the land over which they’re flying.
“We fly at 5,000 to 9,000 feet, so they’re able to see a lot of landmarks,” Stagnitti said.
One of Stagnitti’s passengers had had a bone marrow transplant; her immune system was very weak, so she could not risk being exposed to the myriad germs present on a large commercial flight.
“She loved the fact that she could see different landmarks because of the lower altitude we fly at,” Stagnitti recalled.
While Stagnitti said it is gratifying to use his hobby to help others, transporting very ill patients can be difficult, especially once a pilot and frequent flyers have established a rapport. Stagnitti said one of his repeat passengers recently passed away.
“The reward is to get to know these people, but the disappointment is when the treatment doesn’t work,” he said.
How to help
AFE Programs and Events Coordinator Jess Ames said AFE is sometimes called a “best-kept secret.” While pilots donate their time, landing fees, equipment and fuel, AFE also relies on “Earth Angels” — volunteers who help on the ground by coordinating events, promoting the organization or performing other tasks.
“We’re always looking for new volunteer pilots and volunteers to help us spread the word,” Ames said.
Pilots can learn how to volunteer for AFE by visiting angelflighteast.org/pilots/requirements. If you haven’t reached 300 flight hours, you may still be able to volunteer as a co-pilot or a mission assistant.
AFE also welcomes donations.
“Nobody’s getting rich,” Tallini said of AFE, which has a small staff to coordinate flights.
Tallini said she and her family have begun a new Christmas tradition of donating to AFE, and she encourages others to do the same.
“If you’re looking for an organization to donate to … it’s one where you know your money is not going to be used for things other than paying the office staff’s salaries, heat for the building,” Tallini said. “A lot of people are concerned that their money is not being used appropriately — that’s not the case [with AFE].”
To learn more about Angel Flight East and how to help, visit angelflighteast.org.