SM AIRPORT — Dana Harvey knows there is no stronger bond than the one between a mother and her children. With four of her own and a nonprofit in Oakland to run, Harvey can’t imagine being away from home for too long.
But having been diagnosed with breast cancer last year, Harvey was forced to travel to Los Angeles for treatment, leaving her family behind. Without the means to fly back and forth, Harvey was facing the harsh reality of staying in Los Angeles for six months, fighting off the life-threatening disease without her most trusted allies.
“I had a lot of responsibilities back home that I didn’t want to severe links to,” Harvey said during a phone interview earlier this week. “But of course, most importantly, I didn’t want to be away from the kids.”
Luckily for Harvey, she didn’t have to. Harvey hooked up with a local nonprofit called Angel Flight West, which arranges free air transportation for non-emergency healthcare and other needs through volunteer pilots living in 13 western states. Angels, also known as pilots, also transport precious cargo such as organs, blood, tissues and medical supplies. The organization arranges free air support for disaster relief efforts in times of crisis and transports kids with disabilities to summer camps.
Pilots cover flight costs, so there is no charge for a “mission” or flight. The majority of the missions are flown using small, single-engine planes owned by the pilots.
“It’s a way for us to show compassion through something we are passionate about,” said Angel Flight West Executive Director Alan Dias, a pilot who joined the organization in 1993. “We are going to fly anyway. What Angel Flight provided me … was the opportunity to do something I was passionate about and give back to the community and that happens over 4,000 times a year.”
Based out of the Santa Monica Airport, Angel Flight West was founded in 1983 by a group of pilots with a philanthropic spirit. In the first full year of operation, pilots flew 12 missions. In 2008, pilots donated their time and funds to fly 4,196 missions. The goal is to fly 5,000 in 2009.
“It’s a goal we are going to meet, but it’s a challenge,” Dias said.
The number of people requesting flights has dropped, mainly because people are losing their jobs and health insurance coverage, forcing some to give up treatment or cut back. Hospitals are also struggling with funding, with some no longer offering treatment for certain illnesses, Dias said.
“At a time when you’d expect to see more people using our services, we’ve seen a decline and we are committed to getting the word out, talking with social service agencies and hospitals to make people more aware that we exist,” he said.
Dias will be happy when he enters a room and no one confuses him with Angels Flight Railway in Downtown Los Angeles or Angel’s Flight homeless shelter for teens.
If Harvey had it her way, everyone would know about the nonprofit that she credits with helping her get her cancer in check. While she isn’t completely cancer free, Harvey will be celebrating Mother’s Day Sunday because of the help she received from Angel Flight.
“A big part of healing, especially with a terminal illness, is just really being around people who love you. That is medicine as well,” said Harvey, who runs the nonprofit Mandela Marketplace, which focuses on community leadership training and is in the process of incubating a worker-owned grocery store.
“Just to be able to hold my children, smell them, those little things you forget because you take them for granted every day,” Harvey added. “That was really critical.”
Not only did the flights allow Harvey to be with her family, they provided her and her children with positive memories. Instead of her children remembering the summer as the time when she was diagnosed with cancer, Harvey said her children will look back on it as somewhat of an adventure.
Some patients use flight time as a way to forget their illness. When they are up in the air gazing at the clouds or the beautiful scenery below, they are focused on more than just their treatments, said Angel Flight pilot Rob Ross, a Santa Monica resident who joined the nonprofit in 1991.
“It’s not just about getting them to where they need to go, but also about the boosts they get off the ground and see how things look from there,” Ross said.
During some flights, pilots and patients talk non-stop, building up a long-lasting relationship, while others are too wiped out from chemotherapy to carrying on a conversation and prefer to sleep. Either way, pilots do their best to make patients feel as comfortable as possible. Some provide music while others offer blankets and teddy bears, which are donated to Angel Flight.
Because pilots often fly the same patients multiple times, they see first-hand the effects of a devastating disease. It can be emotionally difficult for some, particularly when a frequent flyer dies.
“I’ve been to all the dusty airports in the western U.S. picking up people and you see them month after month,” Ross said. “Some look better after a month, while others we see go down hill. It’s been tough. I’ve seen a lot of people who make it and a lot of people who don’t.”
Harvey is one of those who did make it through treatment and is winning her fight with breast cancer.
She is grateful for Angel Flight and is an advocate in her own way.
“There are a lot of really good nonprofits out there, but this one is an amazing organization,” she said. “If people ask where they can contribute, I say Angel Flight even before my own nonprofit. I really cannot say enough good things about them.”