HOLLAND — About 10 times in three years, Emily Dreyer’s parents made a bed for her in the back seat of their car and drove 12 hours to the east coast, where Dreyer could obtain needed medical treatment.
“These trips were extremely hard on my fragile body and spine, and have become much harder over the years as my conditions progress,” Dreyer said.
But for the 22-year-old Hudsonville resident, the trips are essential. She has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which causes faulty connective tissue and makes her joints very loose and hypermobile.
If it weren’t for a local nonprofit, getting Dreyer to the doctor would require the day-long car ride, more pain for her fully-fused spine, and logistical and financial issues.
But Wings of Mercy has been providing air transportation for Dreyer for almost 10 years.
“Wings of Mercy has allowed us to continue making several trips a year for necessary and life-changing treatments and surgeries, so I may have the best life possible with the conditions and diseases I have,” Dreyer said.
Wings of Mercy is a faith-based nonprofit in Zeeland which provides free air transportation for patients who can’t afford to travel to distant medical centers. All of the pilots are volunteers, and 80 percent of funds received by the organization are used for travel costs, according to its website.
The organization was founded in 1991 by Peter VandenBosch, a Michigan pilot. More than 8,000 trips have been completed since then.
The organization will host its annual fundraiser, the 2018 Holland Care Affaire, from 8 a.m.-noon on Saturday, Aug. 25, at the West Michigan Regional Airport, 60 Geurink Blvd. The goal is to raise $50,000.
Dreyer and her parents have made more than 40 medical trips to Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, and she has undergone more than 20 surgeries for her EDS, which impacts joints surrounding her brain and spine. Dreyer said she has flown at least 20 times with Wings of Mercy.
For most of those flights, Ryan Veenstra has been the pilot. Veenstra has been volunteering with Wings of Mercy for 10 years, and said he’s made about 75 trips for the organization.
“Most people are facing a serious medical challenge, and some are facing life and death situations,” Veenstra said. “It’s been a privilege being able to help them get the best care they can by taking them out of state sometimes.”
Veenstra is one of Dreyer’s favorite pilots, she said, though all of them have been “amazing,” she added.
Dreyer said her favorite memories with Wings of Mercy are when the plane reaches the necessary altitude to be in autopilot, allowing the pilots to relax and take in the view.
Dreyer first heard about Wings of Mercy in 2009. In December of that year, her symptoms were again becoming life-threatening.
A surgery in Washington D.C. to have the base of her skull fused with her top cervical vertebrae was successful, and a Wings of Mercy plane brought her back home to Michigan.
That was her first flight with the nonprofit.
“From the moment the plane met us at the door of the private hangar, to the moment we first met the pilot and co-pilot, it immediately became clear what kind of amazing people and organization we were dealing with,” she said.