He was a military man with some rank, but not much. I had met him on a few occasions—those casual in-the-office types of introductions. Then, the unthinkable happened to his family. Their little five year old daughter was fighting a losing battle with one of those cancers that is devastating to all who are involved—parents, doctors, social workers, ministers, and the rest of us.
Within my schedule of ministerial activities, I found time to be at the hospital where their youngster was experiencing her last day on this earth. I entered the ICU, reintroduced myself, and offered my every assistance. One thing was weighing heavily as they watched their little girl struggle with her illness—they had tried again and again to secure a visit from the priest.
I excused myself and took my leave to the hospital chaplain office area and spoke to the receptionist. I was very firm as I related the circumstances, “If the priest in question is incapable of finding the time to visit that young family and their terminally ill daughter, who is in her last moments of life, then, I will ensure that he is also incapable of remaining in the priesthood.”
When I returned to the ICU, the young priest was there doing that which priests do—extreme unction. The point: when people need help, they need it now, not sometime in the future—it’s applicable to all of us. If you’ve not experienced it yet, you will!
How does all of that fit into Angel Flight? The answer is rather simple and even religious, although many don’t want to acknowledge the religious principal of “doing unto others.”
With the realization that I had an airplane and piloting skills and a compelling desire to be helpful to others, the answer came as though “it was meant to be.” My “epiphany” came in the form of a magazine advertisement for Angel Flight. It seemed as though the match had been made. All that was needed was my application to these like-minded folks. Simultaneously, I found another advertisement telling about AirLifeLine. I began correspondence with both organizations—AirLifeLine responded first. (For those who don’t know the “corporate history,” Angel Flight and AirLifeLine merged more than 10 years ago.)
My first mission was somewhat comical as to its point of origin. Due to my previous residence in Wichita, KS, I was quite familiar with the small city of Hays City, KS. Consequently, when I noted the mission for a two year old patient and two adults to fly from Dallas to Hays, KS, I quickly volunteered—a simple flight from San Antonio to Dallas to Hays City. However, it wasn’t Hays City. Instead, it was Hays, KS which is located many miles to the northwest. However, obligations are obligations and at the appointed time, I met young Karen and her adult companions at Dallas Executive, flew around convoluted thunderstorm activity, and ensured our safe arrival at Hays. (They had flown to Dallas in two much slower aircraft and were surprised that the landing was at Hays and at a much earlier time than that for which they had planned.)
The story continues. As is most always the case, I stayed with my passengers until their ground transportation was secured. Then, I began those pilot duties of ensuring that the aircraft is safe for another flight. In the process of all of that pre-flight activity and the need to use both hands, I laid my cell phone on the wing. I fully intended to retrieve it later, but the cellphone was unusual among the usual. If you are already ahead of me, you’ve concluded that I took off and the cellphone did not. The usual process of retracing ones previous movements revealed the obvious—I called the Hays airport. They had found my phone. Thereafter, I made arrangements for it to be mailed to me—it was undamaged and worked for a long time thereafter.
When I was asked about my experiences, I pulled files, put pen to paper, and engaged the calculator. I have flown more than 200 missions with a total distance that’s rounded down to 239 thousand nautical miles in the previous 14 years, flying for Angel Flight South Central, Angel Flight Central, and AirLifeLine. However, due to my own dealings with cancer, I was not able to actively participate as a pilot from late fall of 2008 until late spring of 2010.
Because of my own cancer, I can easily relate to the majority of our passengers. I know what it’s like to hear your doctor use the word cancer as it applies to your own health. I know how it causes one to reevaluate that which is important as compared to that which is immediate. Additionally, my own health concerns, surgery, and recovery were very instructive towards my better understanding of compassion. Almost always, the passengers, with whom I fly, want to tell their story. They’re anxious to communicate with someone who can and will listen to their story—listening is more complex than simply hearing the articulated speech.
I had occasion to meet one such passenger at an airport in the Houston area—she had experienced a great deal of suffering, consequential treatment, and the inevitable depression that comes with it. She painfully expressed her woes and how it had consumed her very life—not the living and breathing, but the family unit—life savings—even the motivation that helps us face the next tomorrow. I listened intently, felt her emotion, witnessed the tears, and then offered this observation, “You’re still alive.”
Recently, I was fortunate enough to again be the pilot of this particular lady. Her response to my question when we met on this occasion will be remembered and cherished for many years. She said, “I’m still alive.”
All through the years, I have used those blessings bestowed upon me by the Greatest Giver. I’ve been blessed with an airplane, piloting skills, a compassionate attitude, a wonderful church family, and those innumerable opportunities to share it all. Too many of my previous passengers, who also became my friends, have passed on from this life, but we’ve never failed to take advantage of the opportunity to laugh, cry, commiserate, and uplift each other as we face today’s problems and make plans for the ones that might come on each tomorrow. Each of us should carefully consider that there’s a limit on how many of those moments are remaining.
When challenged to write this piece, I looked through my composite of files, many names were refreshed in my memory. Some have been older and others have been younger. Almost without exception those names belonged to someone who did not completely understand why their life was interrupted by an encounter that most of us only read about.
One of the most memorable occurred years ago, during the AirLifeLine days. It’s a memory about a middle aged adult male who helplessly experienced his life as it unraveled from that which we would call comfortable to one of desperation. His cancer took his energy and he lost his job. The loss of the job took away his income and his employer-furnished medical benefits. The loss of income finally rendered him homeless—he was moving from shelter to shelter while dealing with the aftermath of chemotherapy. After a few telephone calls, I arranged for one of our pilots to put him in a motel for the night and to meet me at a designated airport early the next morning.
Very early the next morning, I made all the preparations and launched from San Antonio to meet my passenger in Tulsa. We went through the essential safety briefings, loaded his luggage (it was a cardboard box) and made a comfortable place for him in the back seat. We flew to the maximum range of the aircraft—twice. When we finally met our rendezvous that would take him on to Baltimore, he grasped me at the shoulder and with tears streaming down his face, he looked deeply into my eyes and said, “You people don’t even know me, but you’re willing to help.” We hugged and I said, “We help because that’s what we do.”
None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. I join with others in heaping the accolades of praise on those who are involved at every level. Sometimes the most helpful thing that can be done is help each other cry.