WEST JORDAN — A 4-year-old girl diagnosed with leukemia got a private plane ride home Monday thanks to the generosity of the pilot community.
Nauseous, miserable, yet grateful, Taleah Stevenson buried her face in her mother’s shoulder before boarding her flight back to the comfort of her home in St. George.
Thanks to the volunteer-driven organization Angel Flight West, Tosha Stevenson could transport her daughter to and from Primary Children’s Medical Center for chemotherapy treatments without the financial cost or physical toll of long-distance car travel.
“It’s so humbling,” Tosha Stevenson said. “We feel very fortunate to have found this service and not have to make the drive, just for the sake of (Taleah) and the way she feels after treatment. … Five hours isn’t horribly long, but it’s long for her when she’s this young and she doesn’t feel well.”
Angel Flight West offers free, non-emergency air travel for those with serious medical conditions or other compelling needs, with a team of 1,600 pilots across 13 Western states.
Those pilots donate their aircraft, skills, time and fuel costs to assist families who might otherwise struggle to obtain vital services due to financial, physical or geographic limitations.
Utah Wing Leader Steve Bollinger said Angel Flight West has completed about 56,000 missions since the organization began in 1983. About 50 pilots make up Utah's volunteer network that conducts about a 100 missions a year.
While the number of completed missions varies from pilot to pilot, Bollinger said volunteers try to help those in need as often as they can.
“These people that are already financially drained because of going through treatment and all the medical costs, they have so many other things to worry about,” Bollinger said. “To be able to take transportation out of the equation for them makes a huge difference in their lives, and it also touches ours.”
Salt Lake City pilot John Trentman helped load the Stevensons' luggage into his aircraft and ensured their comfort before directing his plane down one of South Valley Regional Airport’s runways.
Trentman said he’s been an Angel Flight West volunteer for about six years and has completed between 40 to 50 Angle Flight missions.
“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “Many people either can’t afford the transportation or it’s just too long of a drive for someone that’s ill. It’s a chance for us to visit new airports and give back to the community.”
Taleah was diagnosed with leukemia almost two years ago, but her mother didn't discover Angel Flight West until a few months ago when a hospital worker gave her a pamphlet. Stevenson said Taleah’s healing process has become less physically and financially taxing thanks to Angel Flight West.
“They’ve been so accommodating and they try to make us feel comfortable,” Stevenson said. “They do whatever they can to help.”
Bollinger said Angel Flight West came into existence when the pilot community meshed its passion of flying with its desire to serve the community.
For instance, before the volunteer organization began, pilots would sometimes be so eager to fly they would go out for the so-called “$100 hamburger,” or a lunch break at a far-off airport," Bollinger said. Pilots would gladly pay the price of fuel for that “$100 hamburger” to have an excuse to fly, he said.
Angel Flight West was born when a group of California pilots decided they wanted to invent a way to use their skills to help people in need.
“We’re always looking for reasons to fly,” Bollinger said. “If we can fly and also give service to help out the community, that’s the best of both worlds.”
Pilots can volunteer by submitting an application found on Angel Flight West’s website, where people seeking transportation services can also request a flight, he said.
While Angel Flight West can sometimes accommodate with shorter notice, those in need of its services usually must schedule their flights one week in advance. Additionally, Angel Flight applicants must qualify by either having financial need, physical need — such as an inability due to drive long distances due to illness — or geographical need.
Stevenson said she would encourage everyone to look into qualifying for Angel Flight West’s services.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there who think they don’t qualify for it but do,” she said.
Before Trentman closed his aircraft’s door with Stevenson and her daughter buckled safely inside, he exclaimed with a smile: “Party time!”
As the private plane rolled away, Bollinger grinned and said he was jealous he wasn’t flying a mission Monday.