Alaska Airlines Frequent Fliers Donate Miles To Angel Flight West, Help Connect Patients With Far-Away Medical Care

11/16/2007 11:06 a.m.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members have donated hundreds of thousands of frequent-flier miles so far to Angel Flight West, a charitable organization that provides air transportation to patients who must travel long distances to receive medical care. Angel Flight West, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, is one of several charities that participates in Alaska Airlines' Charity Miles program at alaskaair.com.

Among the many patients who have benefited from Angel Flight West's services are sisters Lorrie Judy of Alaska and Kim Bell of Idaho.

Sisters share a lot of things shoes, clothes, secrets. But a vital body organ? When Judy learned her sister, Bell, needed a kidney, there was no question she would donate one of her own.

Bell has polycystic kidney disease and the dialysis treatment that tethered her to a machine for hours each day had begun to fail. Tests proved that younger sister, Judy, was the perfect donor.

But their usual mode of communication talking on the phone wouldn't cut it this time. Judy needed to be at her sister's bedside pronto. With limited means, buying a round-trip ticket from her home in Soldotna was out of the question.

"I didn't know how I was going to get there," Judy says.

That's when an angel stepped in. Local private pilot Stuart Goering flies for Angel Flight West, a charitable organization that matches patients in need with volunteer pilots who transport them to medical treatment, free of charge.

Goering not only flew Judy from Soldotna to Anchorage in his four-seat airplane, his family gave her a ride to the international airport.

"His kids loaded my bags in their car and off we went to the airport," Judy says. "The whole family was involved."

Alaska Airlines took over, providing free travel for Judy from Anchorage to Portland, where she was to have the operation to donate her kidney at Oregon Health & Science University.

Unfortunately, Judy's sister suffered a gall bladder attack the night before the surgery and the transplant had to be delayed.

Four months later, Judy received the call that another Angel Flight West pilot would pick her up. She again flew by private plane to Anchorage and then on Alaska Airlines to Portland where, this time, the operation took place.

Judy says that doctors reported her kidney started working immediately after it was transplanted. Her sister's recovery was quick, too.

"We were supposed to be in intensive care for two weeks, but after four days we were both up and going," Judy says.

Judy and Bell were tight as youngsters, growing up with four other brothers and sisters in Hailey, Idaho. Now, they share something even more vital.

"I never once stopped to think about donating it," Judy says. "I just did it because I love her."

That was three years ago this week, and Judy says the experience remains on the top of her mind.

"We couldn't have done it without the help we got from Angel Flight West," she says. "In them, our prayers were answered."

There are many others like Judy, according to Donna Hartman, Alaska Airlines' manager of community relations and corporate giving. Alaska provides free travel to about 700 passengers a year through the far-reaching but low-key nonprofit group based in Santa Monica, Calif. Besides its relationships with commercial airlines, Angel Flight West also works with private pilots throughout 13 western states, who use their personal aircraft to provide no-cost transportation to people who need it.

Most missions are for folks who live in or are flying to rural areas, where travel by car would be too lengthy or expensive. Others are for medical reasons. A patient may be too sick to fly on a commercial flight, for example, says Cheri Cimmarrusti of Angel Flight West.

The organization doesn't allow patients to call directly and request help. Cimmarrusti says they must be referred by a doctor or other health care professional. Once the request is accepted, the need is posted on the Angel Flight West Web site and pilots in the area are contacted for their help.

Among the volunteer pilots is Alaska Airlines CEO Bill Ayer, who has flown dozens of Angel Flight West missions and serves on the organization's board of directors. He counts his angel flight missions among some of his most memorable flights.

"I've had the privilege of seeing what this organization does firsthand and it's truly humbling," said Ayer.

For more information about Angel Flight West, visit www.angelflightwest.org.

To donate Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, visit Alaska Airlines' Charity Miles program Web site at www.alaskaair.com/mileageplan/ssl/Donate/DonateMiles.aspx.