South Florida Hospital News
Saturday September 19, 2020

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March 2006 - Volume 2 - Issue 9

Angel Flight Southeast is a Godsend to Patients and Hospitals

One of the best kept secrets in health care has been flying high for nearly a quarter century, but far too many people, in health care and the general public, remain unaware of the diverse and highly effective services provided by Angel Flight Southeast (AFSE) and it’s partners.

AFSE is a non-profit, volunteer organization of humanitarian pilots and their supporters who offer public benefit flights at no charge to medically stable patients and families in need of essential care at distant locations. Volunteer pilots, using private aircraft, provide air transportation to medical facilities for adults, children, infants and family members. Although its mission coordination center is in Leesburg, its pilots are based at hundreds of airports throughout the Southeast. As the regional partner for Angel Flight America, AFSE serves patients and hospitals in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Caroline and Georgia. Angel Flight America covers all 50 states through a network of six regional divisions. The organization provides 90% of all public benefit flights in the U.S., averaging 17,000 flights annually, and is the largest organization of its kind in the world.

According to Deborah Deal, Executive Director and CEO of AFSE, the regional organization provided over 3500 flights last year. "Our pilots take people to distant medical facilities for specialized care, procedures, diagnostic tests and consultations that may not be available locally. There are some medical procedures that are only offered at a few places, or there may be clinical trials taking place at certain facilities. If a baby needs to have a cranial cap procedure to correct a misshapen skull, for example, the family will have to take the child to a facility that offers that.

Blake Mathis is just one of many Angel Flight Southeast pilots that flew evacuees from Hurricane Katrina to unite them with family members and start a new life.

"A person may be in an advanced stage of their disease, at a point where the local health care professionals have nothing more to offer. If you are a patient with special needs, maybe your only hope, your last hope, is to see a specialist in another city. That’s where we come in."

Whether they are flying a toddler to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, a teen to the Shriners Hospital in Tampa for orthopaedic care or taking an adult to M.D. Andersen Cancer Center in Texas, the pilots of Angel Flight are filling one of the greatest, and largely unrecognized, gaps in modern health care – the cost of transportation necessary to access essential care. Transportation costs are not generally covered or reimbursed by health insurance.

Families and individuals who are coping with a medical disaster may find that, even with insurance, they can run out of funds quickly. "These hidden costs, including transportation, parking, meals and hotels, can quickly bankrupt a family," says Deal, "and they think they have no alternatives. Angel Flight is a godsend for these families, because we do not charge for our services."

Angel Flight pilots donate their time, use of their plane, fuel costs and insurance and maintenance costs. They are supported by a "ground crew" known as Earth Angels, volunteers who coordinate the missions, matching patients to pilots and taking care of a multitude of details. "Our volunteers are unpaid professionals, extremely well trained and committed," says Sheri Hutchinson, AFSE Director of Operations. "All of us find our work so gratifying, especially the pilots. They get to do what they love - fly - and they get to make a contribution to the lives of others."

There are several other, lesser-known aspects of Angel Flight’s scope of services. The organization provides free flights for caregivers, too, when a family member needs to relocate in order to care for a loved one who is very ill. In addition, Angel Flight is a resource for people whose medical conditions make commercial flying impractical or unaffordable. Persons who are oxygen-dependent, for example, may find that airline policies prohibit them from using their own oxygen. Use of the plane’s oxygen system is often mandatory, but very expensive. Flying with AFSE also means not having to endure the ordeal of going through long airport security lines.

Organ transplant missions are another AFSE specialty. Deal says that this is a special duty for the "elite" pilots. Patients register ahead of time with Angel Flight and even meet their pilot. All the details are ironed out well in advance, so that when the patient is notified that an organ is available, the flight can happen very quickly.

The humanitarian mission of AFSE also includes responding to disasters. "AFSE played a significant role in last year’s Hurricane Katrina disaster relief," says Hutchinson, "transporting supplies and emergency personnel and relocating displaced residents of the Gulf states." The organization also played a crucial role in the September 11 attacks. When no other planes were allowed to fly, AFA pilots flew in medical personnel and supplies, including such obscure but essential items as booties to protect the paws of rescue dogs.

Despite a record of excellence, safety and customer satisfaction, Angel Flight is underutilized, and Deal and her colleagues would like to see that change. "We would like the social workers, doctors and nurses to understand all that we do and how valuable our services can be to their patients and families. We know that we are still meeting only about 10% of the need, according to the studies. Whether the patient is indigent or affluent, there is no charge, ever. No one in this country ever has to be denied care because of transportation costs.

Angel Flight Southeast receives no government funding and relies on an annual golf tournament, individual donations and some corporate and foundation support to fund its operations center.

For more information or to make a donation, call (352) 326-0761 or visit the web site, To inquire about a flight, call 1-800-352-4256 during normal business hours.
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