For residents in rural parts of the country, finding medical care can be a challenge, and it often comes at a high price. But a program based in St. Cloud is helping put an end to this dilemma. A group of amateur pilots volunteer their time to fly patients to hospitals in larger cities. They call themselves Wings of Mercy and they do all their work for free.
TIM BRAKSTED WARMS UP THE ENGINE on his Pioneer Cherokee four-seater. He's run through this checklist countless times in his 15 years as a pilot, but since 1996, preparing for a flight has taken on new meaning. That was the year Braksted and a group of amateur pilots began flying "missions" for the group Wings of Mercy.
Braksted: Every pilot likes to fly, so any excuse to fly more is always a plus. I don't think anybody in the group had any idea that they were going to get so tied to it. And I don't think I've ever talked to any of the pilots who have flown in the group who haven't come away with something extremely close to them.Braksted has flown more than 30 missions for Wings of Mercy. He is one of some 45 pilots who donate their time and their planes to fly low-income people to hospitals where they can get specialized medical care. The missions are often very emotional, says Braksted, but also rewarding. Braksted says he vividly remembers his second flight, when he, a co-pilot, and two critical-care nurses made an emergency trip to Traverse City, Michigan.
Braksted: We picked up an elderly lady and brought her back to St. Paul. She was over there at a family reunion, her cancer flared up, and she wasn't able to make a motor trip back home. Her one wish was that she wanted to come back to St. Paul and be home with her family in her last few days. She got that one dream that she wanted bad and couldn't have economically accomplished any other way.Glenn Young is a kind of air-traffic controller for all of the Wings of Mercy missions. He takes requests from patients, contacts pilots, and even monitors weather conditions from the living room of his Litchfield home. Like the pilots, he volunteers his time to help people from all over the Midwest.
Young: We'll cover Denver, Colorado, down as far south as Joplin, Missouri, then going east to Terre Haute, Indiana ... We've been to Cincinnati and up to Ann Arbor, Michigan.Young keeps careful records of each flight in a white binder he stores underneath his desk. He says even though he rarely meets the patients and families face to face, he remembers them all and he keeps in touch. One of his favorite clients is five-year-old Courtney Macht.
With Christmas fast approaching, the only thing on Courtney's mind is how many of those presents under the tree are for her. She skips around the living room humming her favorite Christmas song. Her brief life hasn't always been this carefree. When she was two days old, she suffered the first in a series of liver failures. By age three, she was attracting national attention when she became the youngest person to have a liver and small bowel transplant. Courtney's mom, Michelle, says the first year after surgery, she and Courtney had to make trips once a week from their farm in Canby to the University of Minnesota Medical Center in the Twin Cities; trips she says she never could have made without the Wings of Mercy pilots.
Macht: Oh, it would have been driving to Minneapolis and St. Paul, which I cannot do. I am so scared of it and I don't know my way around. It's so good the way they have it set up where we fly into the airport, we call a cab, and the cab takes us to the hospital. And when we're done, the cab takes us back to the airport and the guys fly us back to Marshall. No other organization is going to do that for you.Courtney and Michelle have become good friends with pilots who fly into Marshall to help them. This year, there haven't been as many trips to the Twin Cities because Courtney only requires occasional check-ups. It's fantastic news to pilot Tim Braksted, who holds five-year-old Courtney very close to his heart. Her's is one story with a happy ending.
Braksted: Most of us look back at it and say, even the missions that end in a patient passing away at some point, we know we've done something positive and that, had we not been there, they either would not have gotten treatment or been able to make it home in time.Braksted and the other pilots with Wings of Mercy head into their fourth year of service this January, with a total of 170 flights. Tim Braksted says he's ready for flight number 171 when he can help a new friend or reunite with an old one.