MISSOULA — Montana families dealing with critical and complicated medical conditions usually have to travel hundreds of miles for specialized care.
That’s one reason why the Angel Flight West program -- where volunteer pilots across the state fly patients and their families to out of state hospitals and clinics -- is so important to rural areas. But there’s a problem -- there aren’t enough pilots to meet the demand.
Pilot Michael Burks and his wife Kiomi spend a lot of time in the air. While they love flying, the flights are more about service then scenery. Michael has spent hundreds of hours in the air, flying critically ill or injured patients to their distant doctor’s appointments.
One of those patients is 16-year-old Mya, who has brittle bone disease. She told us her bones are like chalk and that she and her mom often go to Seattle for care and do it aboard Burks’ Cessna -- which drastically cuts down travel time and stress.
“And If I have to drive the trip with like, broken legs, so it can be very difficult to make that trip," Mya said.” It's difficult for a lot of families."
"I didn’t realize how much of a relief it would be emotionally, physically and financially,” Mya’s mom Carly Brown said. “It helps us take a moment to breathe after the doctor’s appointments it gives us a minute to sink in what’s happening and to just have a moment to ourselves."
While he knows he’s helping a family through a challenging time, Michael says he gets as much as he gives.
“Not only do you get to leave your problems on the ground, you get so much inspiration on the flight, just hearing all the trouble and everything they’re going through,” he said. “The 85th operation, the 500th bone broken -- and they’re still laughing and they’re still enjoying life. It’s just awesome.”
Angel Flight West is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization that arranges free, non-emergency air travel for children and adults with serious medical conditions and other compelling needs.
Michael – who was just named the Angel Flight West Montana Ling leader -- says there are only a few pilots in the state who volunteer in the program, even as more and more families need the service. But, he is determined to change that.
“My goal is to get every pilot who can qualify in the state of Montana to do one a month,” Michael said. “To be available to [do] one a month. One a month, three hours a month, to help someone who doesn’t have to drive eight to ten hours would take care of every single mission out there.”
The need is especially great in the very rural parts of Montana. “And this is what Angel flight is for, the rural areas. Eastern Montana is the greatest need right now. People are driving hundreds of miles and they shouldn't be,” Kiomi said.
“And we’ve heard stories of people having to ride a Greyhound [bus] 17 hours because there’s no one available. So, we’re going to be hitting Billings and Bozeman really hard,” Michael said. “There’s a lot of pilots there and some big airports so we know they are there, and I just don’t think they understand what the program is and how easy it is to qualify to fly."
Kiomi may not be a pilot but she's Montana’s only Earth Angel. That means Kiomi, helps coordinate travel from the airport to the hospitals. She also assists the families -- and there is a need for more volunteers like that. Pilots and other people interested in participating in the program can click here – or send an email – for more information.