BY JOHN GILL, M.D.
Even before our first flight together, Ina and I were acquaintances at church. I remember hearing she was diagnosed with cancer and then that she was going to start going to MD Anderson. A little before her first trip to Houston I suggested she consider Angel Flight to decrease the stress of travel. I hoped to be able to make some of those flights myself.
I became a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight South Central in 2013, and I’ve flown nearly 100 missions since then. Each Angel Flight is a little different. It is always interesting to meet new people, and I’m encouraged by their resilience and their stories. Typically, I get to know my passengers a little over the course of a week or so while preparing for the flight and then during a couple of hours on the flight itself (interrupted by calls from air traffic control and running checklists). On a couple of occasions, I have gotten to fly the same patient a second time. My time with Ina was particularly special, though, and taught me that the flight itself is only part of the benefit.
With my friend Chris (also a pilot and handy to have in the cockpit when flying into busy Houston Class Bravo airspace), I ended up flying Ina and her husband Paul on 27 different flights over the next three years. My wife, Hilary, also frequently joined us to offer Ina and Paul companionship and support. Counting our deadhead legs (that is, flights without passengers), I calculate that we flew about 8,100 miles over that three years!
[Pictured at top: My wife, Hilary (left), looking after Ina and Paul during a 2017 Angel Flight.]
As a family physician I’m often around people who are seriously ill, but this experience with Ina and Paul provided a new window into what it is like to deal with the ongoing uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis. Ina and I shared a common faith that we can trust Christ with our futures, and when we flew together we would usually spend a few moments in prayer for her trip, for the wisdom of the doctors, and for the ability to persevere through each next step. Sometimes the news was good and we’d rejoice together. Other times it was hard, and the return flight became just a time for comfort and getting home to rest. Through it all, Ina found assurance in her faith and continued to work and exercise (she was a regular at Zumba!). A couple of times other family members came along. On one occasion her teenaged son joined them to make some memories going to a Texans game the night before her appointments. Typically we would fly down to Houston early Wednesday morning and return to pick them up on Thursday afternoon. Looking back on those days, Paul told me recently how important it was to have a larger community looking out for him and Ina. “As a caregiver, there were times when bad news had me so rattled that I couldn't be nearly as supportive as I would have liked. You and Chris (and Hilary at times) relieved me of this added stress.”
[Above: I’m still flying regularly with Angel Flight South Central. Most recently, I brought Kristen and her parents from Little Rock to Houston.]
We were just about to start our fourth year of flying when Ina became seriously ill and passed away. We had come to know Ina and Paul well over that time as we shared this time of life together. I knew that it had been a blessing to them as we would hear of their “other” travel experiences when we would occasionally have to cancel or postpone a flight due to weather. Angel Flights dramatically reduced the stress of trips that were already stressful to begin with. When I spoke with Paul recently, he said that “the few times where the weather made air travel prohibitive and I had to make the drive it was so much more stressful and fatiguing on top of the anguish we experienced with this destructive disease.”
What I didn’t realize until after Ina’s passing was how those blessings had reached out into her larger family. At her visitation, I received hugs, thanks, and tears from multiple extended family members, some of whom I had never met. Again and again they said how much our service had meant to them. We know that God provided the resources and we just got the privilege of being a conduit of grace. I am thankful for the privilege of flying for Angel Flight – for the staff who have arranged and coordinated logistics so many times. I am also thankful for the added bonus of getting this glimpse into the blessings that rippled out beyond those we were flying to their families and close friends – far beyond what I or the Angel Flight staff would normally ever see.
John Gill, M.D., practices family medicine in Waco, Texas.