For the past two years, cancer patient Bob Proctor has traveled between his rural North Idaho home and Seattle for treatments. Some frights in that journey haven’t all come from stage 4 kidney cancer.
Rather, Proctor describes scares from slick roads and close encounters with big trucks when he and his wife, Lee, drove for eight hours one-way. Proctor was diagnosed in October 2014, and entered clinical trials soon after at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where he also has had regular chemo treatments.
“You get done with an infusion, and you don’t feel real good, so the last thing you want to do is jump on I-90 eastbound over Snoqualmie Pass with half a gazillion crazed 18-wheelers and me in a Subaru,” Proctor said.
“You throw in winter weather and crazies on slick roads, and it’s really something I don’t want to undertake.”
So Proctor, 63, decided to fly.
He booked with Alaska Airlines for medical visits typically three weeks apart, but that proved costly and overwhelming, until Nov. 10. That’s when Proctor called Angel Flight West, a nonprofit arranging free flights on small private planes for medical hardship or other humanitarian reasons.
Started in 1983, Angel Flight West is based in Santa Monica, California, and now offers air transport missions in 13 Western states including Washington.
The real lift under the nonprofit’s wings are volunteer pilots who donate their small aircraft, time and fuel for the transports, including Spokane Valley resident Norris Brown, 71. A longtime pilot, Brown on Dec. 13 flew Proctor and his wife to Seattle for a medical appointment in a co-owned Cessna P210.
“The reason I do this is two-fold,” said Brown, a retiree from Kaiser Aluminum. “One, it’s a reason to give back something to the community and, two, it’s a good excuse to fly. People we fly have been vetted that they need help with transportation, so I don’t even ask about it.”
Statewide in 2016, Angel Flight West had more than 600 flights that originated in Washington, said Melinda Denton, a Spokane pilot who coordinates with the nonprofit’s other pilots in the state.
“The bulk of them were flying into the Seattle area,” Denton said. “We would love to have more referrals in Spokane either coming in or out. Medical providers can contact us, or suggest us to a patient.”
Washington also has nearly 170 pilots active with Angel Flight, she said, and they include about 18 pilots in the greater Spokane area. Most are closer to Seattle. One pilot flew 109 missions last year. Another took passengers 83 times, while some pilots only take one passenger request a year.
The nonprofit typically needs at least a week’s notice to arrange travel and will help for other humanitarian reasons, such as when a survivor of domestic violence seeks relocation, or someone needs to visit a terminally ill relative.
Other flights can take children to a burn or cancer camp in the summer, or an injured military member to a therapeutic program.
“We arrange free air transportation in small private planes, so most of them are four- to six-seat airplanes,” said Cheri Cimmarrusti, the group’s associate executive director. “There has got to be a compelling reason for them traveling. Most frequently it’s medical.”
The nonprofit serves in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Because the flights are free, a passenger’s financial need is considered but that involves some flexiblity, Cimmarrusti said.
“Financially, I don’t have a threshold, like here’s a dollar amount for someone to qualify, or that they have to be on state aid,” Cimmarrusti said. “It’s just that traveling would be a financial hardship.”
“We ask either somebody in the medical field, a social worker or doctor’s office to confirm that for us, or if they can’t find somebody to do that, we ask for the passenger to attest to that in writing. We’re fairly flexible in what constitutes financial hardship.”
Some passengers may qualify as rural residents isolated from major airports or advanced treatment.
The nonprofit also requests that passengers have mobility to get into an aircraft, and that they be medically stable. Regionally, it also handles requests from rural Montana residents who need medical transport to Spokane or Seattle, Cimmarrusti said.
Spokane’s Felts Field is often the airport hub for flights in and out, or sometimes for a change of pilots if passengers are from other states such as Montana.
“We fly a lot of kids from Montana and Idaho into Seattle to go to Children’s (Hospital),” Cimmarrusti said. “We fly missions all the time going from your neck of the woods over to Seattle. We also get people in the middle of the state, in the Tri-Cities area, who are either going into Seattle or Spokane.”
The same bad weather that stalls road travel can cause pilots to cancel scheduled transports, so people should have a backup plan, Cimmarrusti added.
“The drawback is that these are small private planes, and they’re flown by volunteers,” she said. “There can be a situation where we might not find a volunteer. That doesn’t happen often, though.”
Denton’s role with Angel Flight West also includes working with others to recruit pilots and inform medical providers about its service. Pilots aren’t required to fly a certain number of missions, Denton said. Last year, she only flew one passenger but has piloted about 50 trips since 1998.
Pilots can join online and complete a short nonprofit orientation, including some safety information.
“We can never have too many pilots, and we can never have too many missions,” Denton said. “Pilots will tell you they’re making a donation to a cause, and they get to meet the person who benefits from that donation.”
“As a pilot, you need to fly to stay current, so it’s great to have a reason to fly. With the patients, we can get into small communities, and we can get them back and forth to treatment.”
Many years back, she flew two women on different trips from Montana to cancer treatments in Coeur d’Alene. Denton still remembers their thankful responses.
“Normally, they would drive in for three days of treatments and drive home for about a 17-hour round trip,” Denton said. “Once they found out about Angel Flight, we could pick them up in a two-hour flight to Coeur d’Alene. They could relax and look at the scenery below.”
For Proctor, the recent trip in Brown’s Cessna was like an early Christmas gift. He had just spent a week in the hospital for knee surgery, after removal of a lesion because cancer had spread to his tibia.
Proctor continues to stay in touch with the Angel Flight West volunteers he’s met.
“They’re wonderful people,” he said. “We’ve exchanged emails and calls, and just become wonderful friends in the process. It’s an unexpected benefit.”
Proctor said he expects to return to a clinical trial in February or March, so he will request another Angel Flight West flight to meet with Seattle specialists early next month.
He started this week with a new chemo treatment in pill form. “I picked up that prescription in Spokane. I began radiation treatment in Spokane Valley a week before. All the bone scans and periodic visits are still happening in Seattle.”
But he got good news at that Dec. 13 follow-up appointment in Seattle.
“They’re not finding any additional areas of concern. Right now, we have a little breathing room.”
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