One day about six years ago, Lewis L. saw an ad in the newspaper about Corporate Angel Network, an organization that allows patients with cancer to fly free of charge in corporate jets. It seemed too good to be true.
“I was a little skeptical that this was real,” Lewis says.
Since being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2000, Lewis had been making all of his own travel arrangements to fly from his home in Florida to New York City to be treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
At the time of diagnosis, Lewis’ oncologist in Florida said there were few cancer centers in the country that could give him the best chances of long-term survival — and Memorial Sloan Kettering was one of them. Then, and still today, Lewis says the travel is “worth the schlep.”
After seeing that newspaper ad, Lewis decided to sign up for Corporate Angel Network and received arrangements for his first flight. He was unsure of how it would go, however, so he also booked a regular flight to be safe.
Even as he and his wife, Bonnie, arrived at the Palm Beach International Airport and boarded a small luxury corporate jet, Lewis says he was still hesitant about the whole situation.
“I said, ‘Where do you want us to sit?’ and the pilot said, ‘Anywhere — it’s your plane,’” Lewis recalls. “It was surreal.”
Today, Lewis has full faith in Corporate Angel Network and says that treatment without it is “hard to imagine and unpleasant to think about.”
More than 500 corporations participate in the service, including many from the top half of the Fortune 500, according to the nonprofit’s website.
“The empty seats we have, it’s wonderful that we can fill it with someone who needs to get somewhere to get the treatment they need,” says Peggy Sebald, senior aviation scheduler for Eli Lilly and Company. “Our senior management is 100 percent behind the reason we do it.”
Eli Lilly and Company has been flying patients for about 20 years.
“It’s a really great experience,” Sebald said.
“The corporations that participate with us love it, from top management down,” says Peter H. Fleiss, executive director emeritus of Corporate Angel Network. “They feel good about what they’re doing.”
Some of these corporate members have developed a relationship with Ava, a 6-year-old with neuroblastoma who also flies regularly from Florida to New York to be treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
Ava and her parents have been flying with Corporate Angel Network for about a year now. Every month, when it’s time to head up to New York for treatment, Ava asks her mother if they’re “flying corporate.”
“I have to admit — initially it was overwhelming that we were joining these corporate executives on this jet. But walking up on the jet, everyone was so welcoming,” says Ava’s mother, Nickelle. “They go above and beyond. They don’t have to provide her meals or new toys, but they do.”
And while Ava enjoys eating chicken fingers (her favorite food) or watching a movie and playing with her new toys on the jet, her parents get more peace of mind. Nickelle says she can relax a bit knowing that her family is saving money, but more importantly that her daughter is not on a germ-ridden plane full of people when her immunity is already compromised.
“It would be more stress in an already stressful situation,” Nickelle said.
Since its inception 35 years ago, Corporate Angel Network has reduced travel stress for Ava, Lewis and tens of thousands of other patients.
“We fly all over the country. There are always patients with cancer that need to get from one place to another,” Fleiss says.
The organization arranges travel for 225 to 250 patients every month and is coming up on a big milestone: 50,000 flights.
“Of course this is a major event for us,” Fleiss says. “50,000 flights is a lot. It’s terrific.”
But Fleiss says that Corporate Angel Network has ambitions that extend beyond the next 50,000 flights.
The organization wants to continue to expand and gain more corporate partners so that there is always an available flight for someone who needs to travel for treatment. Currently, only about half the patients who register are able to find a flight that syncs up with the time and location of their treatments.
“I really want to be flying all the patients we register,” Fleiss says. “That’s the goal.”
In AD 1987, I was given an Angel-flight from Dallas to Chicago. It was a true blessing. I don't remember much about the flight except that it was in a beautiful, comfortable jet which carried about 8 passengers. I was going to Chicago for tests which eventually led to my donating bone marrow to my sister, with Hodgkins. The flight came at a time when my wife and I could barely have afforded the gasoline to drive from Dallas to Chicago and back; this was a blessing to us. And, of course, the test results and subsequent transplant were a tremendous blessing to my sister.
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