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Oregon volunteer pilots fly patients for free

Associated Press Modified: May 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm •  Published: May 13, 2012
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BEND, Ore. (AP) — Sometimes the passengers — who may be flying to chemotherapy appointments in Portland — want to talk. They like discussing what they are going through or want conversation to take their mind off of their health. Other times the passengers can be silent, crestfallen.

The volunteer Angel Flight pilots adapt based on the mood of their passengers. In addition to flying patients to their medical appointments without charge, most pilots want to help however they can.

"We can't control the outcome ... the only thing we can do is try to make life a little better on that day," said Steve Magidson, a Bend resident and Angel Flight volunteer pilot.

He is one of a handful of local hobby pilots who participate in the charity. Angel Flight West is a regional wing of the national charity involving 13 Western states. Within the region, there are 1,900 pilot volunteers who together fly thousands of missions each year, primarily for people who need to reach a medical appointment far from home — often for cancer treatment. The pilots, most of whom fly their own planes, donate their time and equipment and pay for fuel.

Bend resident Rob Breitbarth, the Central Oregon area leader for Angel Flight, became involved when he answered an ad calling for volunteers in Portland in 1998. He was one of 10 pilots to do so. Together the pilots formed the Oregon wing of Angel Flight. Once he got started, he couldn't stop. "It's really addictive, helping people," said Breitbarth.

Breitbarth says 70 percent of the missions involve flying people with cancer. Thirty percent of the missions involve flying children seeking medical treatment. The flights are for nonemergencies, and patients must be able to get on and off the plane. The patients also must be in some financial need to qualify for the service.

Often, Breitbarth says, fighting a medical condition like cancer absolutely devastates a family's resources and therefore makes long-distance travel all the more difficult.

Some patients come from rural areas that don't offer the services needed. Other times a patient has signed up for experimental treatment at a particular hospital.

Bend resident and Angel Flight pilot John Hayes believes people don't always have the best image of private pilots.

"They look at people with their own airplane as a bunch of rich guys just doing their thing and living large. I don't like that image." Instead, Hayes wants to use his hobby and interest to give back.

Magidson has been a member of Angel Flight since 1995. He flies all of his missions accompanied by his wife, Cynde. He loved the concept right away: "You give back to the community and we get to fly. Have some fun, do good stuff," he said.

Sometimes the pilots don't just fly patients. Breitbarth recalls helping a farmer in Idaho fly back and forth to Portland to be with his wife while she was undergoing treatments.

Hayes says they will also fly domestic violence relocations, move supplies into disaster areas or transport guide dogs. Magidson has also helped deliver breast milk from a milk bank in San Jose, Calif.

One of Breitbarth's favorite passengers was Chloe Deputy, a young girl he flew from Baker City to Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for cancer treatments. Breitbarth and other pilots flew the girl twice a week for a couple of years. He understands her cancer is now in remission.

Breitbarth also remembers a woman from Grants Pass who was out of the military and living in a tent while she was undergoing treatment for cancer. "These people are just on the rope's end," said Breitbarth.

The experience that hits him hardest, however, was the time he flew a woman to Wenatchee, Wash., after a doctor's visit in Portland. She had received bad news: Her transplant was failing.

Breitbarth remembers the news was life-threatening. "You just comfort them the best you can on the way home," said Breitbarth.

Hayes' most memorable missions involved a California woman whom he flew many times so she could undergo experimental treatments in Tucson, Ariz., where Hayes was living at the time. She was in her late 30s and had breast cancer. Hayes says he will never forget her spirit and how she loved flying, loved people and viewed the whole experience as a big adventure. During this time, Hayes met the woman's husband and whole family and even let the woman stay at his house when she needed to. She died but remains a vivid memory for Hayes. In spite of the bad things she was going through, she had "the most positive outlook of anyone I've ever known."

While Hayes says forming that kind of bond is rare during a mission, developing a connection with people is not.

Magidson recalls one special couple he met while flying them home from Santa Barbara to Eureka, Calif. He was supposed to fly one leg to San Jose and switch with another pilot, but there was a delay and the couple would have had to wait five hours. So Magidson and his wife decided to fly the whole route, which ended up being more than eight hours round trip. "They were one of those marvelous couples that show you why you want to do this."

Magidson says the man, who had cancer, was maybe 40 and was extremely vibrant and active, although you could tell he had undergone a rough treatment.

As the plane flew over the forest and mountains, the couple looked at flight charts and traced hiking trails they had walked together.

Magidson says the man went from dragging a bit to showing a little more spark.

"He got out of the airplane a different person that day. We just happened to be the people on duty at the time," said Magidson. "We knew on that day we made his life a little better — on that day."

Magidson lost track of the man, like so many of the patients, but heard at one time he was faring better. It's hard, says Magidson. "There's some amount of engagement, some amount of detachment."

While Breitbarth loves flying missions, one of his biggest missions right now is to spread the word about Angel Flight. There are very few flights to or from Central Oregon at this time. Breitbarth chalks a lot of that up to people being unaware of the service. He has been meeting with medical providers throughout the area to try to get the word out. Health care providers, social workers and other professionals serve as the initial conduit to bring patients to Angel Flight (individuals can't sign themselves up). Breitbarth believes Angel Flight is the "best-kept secret in town." He believes there is enough interest from pilots, but they would like to see more missions.

Magidson hasn't flown many missions in recent years, but he's been involved in many other ways, from outreach to manning booths about the organization.

"It's one of the greatest organizations that, no pun intended, flies under the radar," he said.

When he has gone to health care providers to speak with them about Angel Flight, the No. 1 question he hears is: Who pays the pilots? When Magidson replies, "No one," the questions often continue. How are the pilots reimbursed? Does the health insurance pick up the cost? What about fuel?

Magidson says although it can be hard to explain that pilots aren't paid, most pilots wouldn't have it any other way.

"Being paid takes away some of the good part," he said.

Not all passengers say thanks after departing a flight. But they don't have to.

"They don't necessarily verbalize it," said Breitbarth. He says the patients and family members are so wrapped up in having to take care of the disease treatment, "not having to worry about transportation issues takes a huge load off."

That way, Breitbarth says, the patients and their families can "focus on getting well."