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Mercy Medical Airlift carries patients to medical centers

July 27, 2003|by BONNIE HELLUM BRECHBILL

Since 1975, Mercy Medical Airlift has been flying patients to medical centers around the nation. Gene Smelser, program coordinator at the organization's, Virginia Beach, Va., office, said about 5,000 pilots nationwide - including those belonging to a similar organization in California - donate the use of their private airplanes, piloting skills and out-of-pocket expenses to transport seriously ill patients to and from treatment centers.

Some patients cannot fly on commercial aircraft due to their medical conditions, and some cannot afford the frequent flights necessary to obtain treatment.

Also called "Angel Flights," because patients sometimes consider the pilots to be angels, the group operates the only 24-hour national referral service to help patients know whom to contact in their area.

"There are clinics around the country doing research on rare diseases," Smelser said. "The drug companies donate the drugs and the doctors donate their services for research and we transport the patients.

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"Some are adults, and some are children," he said.

"There are 92 facilities we transport people to and from. Some patients have to go weekly; some go monthly."

Smelser said frequent Pennsylvania destinations are Pittsburgh Children's Hospital, because of its work with organ transplants, and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The Virginia office of Mercy Medical Airlifts makes flights to 10 states,

and transported more than 4,000 patients and family members last year, Smelser said.

Kevin Atherton of Chambersburg, president of Millennium Flyers 201, a local ultralight group, said the fly-in raised between $1,500 and $1,800 for the medical airlift last year.

"This Fly-in is the fourth for Mercy Flights," he said. "We hope to raise a lot more money this year.

"There are more people here, and it's better weather. We were rained out last year," he said.

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