When cancer patient Barbara Burton heads to Houston’s University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in March for her monthly treatment, she won’t have to waste precious time sitting in endless traffic, wading through crowded airports or standing in interminable TSA lines.
Instead, the Baton Rouge woman will climb aboard a private flight piloted by a local volunteer with the nonprofit Pilots for Patients, cutting her travel time in half.
For just over ten years, the Louisiana-based organization has eased the burden of travel for residents across the state afflicted with chronic illness.
It's a mission of mercy that sees pilots employ their skills and aircraft to fly ambulatory and medically stable patients to treatment facilities. They target patients who are fighting serious illness, many of them with compromised immune systems that make travel stressful.
Whether their journey is to Houston, Atlanta or Memphis, pilots provide transportation service free of charge to the patients and their families.
“Throughout the state there was a real need,” said Philip Thomas, president of Pilots for Patients. “We saw that when we were flying people, it gave them hope and a chance to fight their severe illness. It opened up a door for them that otherwise they didn’t have.”
With over 140 pilots, roughly 4673 missions completed and 1,729,013 nautical miles flown, the nonprofit Thomas heads has grown considerably since he and his wife, Sharon, founded the organization back in 2008.
Though the organization is headquartered in Monroe, where Thomas and his wife reside, its network of pilots extends throughout Louisiana and into surrounding states, all in service of Louisiana patients in need of travel assistance. Pilots personally spend up to several hundred dollars a mission to cover their time, the cost of fuel and the maintenance on their planes.
“We’re all friends and neighbors in this state, just separated by a little distance,” Thomas said. “Those aircraft are the common denominator that takes distance out of the equation.”
Burton, the patient who travels to Houston for cancer treatments, started flying with Pilots for Patients in Spring 2018. Her monthly flights have removed the strain she used to experience during the long drive to and from the Texas city.
“They’re absolutely a godsend,” Burton said. “When I arrive at my appointment, I’m not exhausted mentally and physically, and I’m in a much better state to endure whatever they throw at me.”
Through Burton’s many trips, she has bonded with her pilots through cracking jokes, singing songs and sharing stories.
“You’re spending a lot of time in a very small space with someone,” Burton said. “It does create a special relationship.”
James Stratton, a pilot from Baton Rouge, has flown Burton several times and says she reminds him of his mother – independent and self-sufficient. A retired Air Force fighter pilot, Stratton shared that Pilots for Patients has given him a way to continue practicing “service before self.”
“I am able to continue my feeling of service that I had when I was in the Air Force for 25 years,” Stratton said. “While they feel that they’re getting something from me, believe me, I’m getting something from them as well.”
Pilot Mark Blair, on the other hand, views his volunteerism as a religious calling, a vocation to return some of his family’s blessings to others. This is Blair’s fourth year flying with the organization, and he averages three to four missions a month.
“I think it’s one of those real bright spots in the state of Louisiana,” Blair said.
Blair sees the organization's mission reflected in the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. In the gospel story, a Samaritan traveler finds a beaten man on the side of the road, left for dead. He stops to help the man, places him on his donkey and transports him to a place where he can heal.
“I see a lot of parallels with that story,” Blair said. “Somebody is in need of medical care, and our donkey has wings.”
Nevertheless, Baton Rouge pilot Don Imhoff hopes that Pilots for Patients is “more than just a taxi service.”
Imhoff has flown missions for the group since 2009 and feels that much of his job boils down to giving people the gift of time — more time with family and less time in the car or standing in security lines at the airport.
He recalled flying a 34-year-old patient with his mother to Dallas, shaving off hours from a trip that normally would have taken much longer and would leave the patient weak and tired after he returned home.
The man’s mother sent Imhoff an email after their mission ended that said when her son flies, “it’s two more days he has with his two children.”
“Those kinds of things make you realize what you can do to make people feel better,” Imhoff said.
In addition to making a long trip more convenient, Pilots for Patients strives to coordinate every last detail, from arranging “ground angels” that pick up patients at the airport, to shifting pilot schedules to accommodate a patient’s requests.
Terry Melancon, another cancer patient out of Baton Rouge suffering from melanoma, stressed that the nonprofit group organized by the pilots has made a trying time a relatively painless ordeal.
“These people understand what it takes when you’re hurting,” he said. “You just have to be a patient — that’s all you have to do.”
At the end of the day, pilots and patients call each other family, taking group pictures after missions and exchanging hugs before they depart. According to Burton, these small and thoughtful gestures make all the difference.
“You’re dealing with a group of people that is very, very kind,” Burton said. “And when you’re ill, kindness counts.”