These volunteer pilots are helping rural Hawaii get the medical assistance they need

Free services cannot solve the problem of rural access to healthcare. But organizers say they can help more people than they can now.

Tekauuri Tanaka was six years old when he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors gave him five years to live.

Maui County

On Maui, where Tanaka and his family live, the treatment he needs is not available. That’s why Tekauuri has had to fly with his parents countless times to get treatment at children’s hospitals in Honolulu and Seattle.

In more than two years managing her son’s cancer, Kara Tanaka has gone from diagnosis to surgical removal of her son’s brain tumor, radiation, chemotherapy, and now regular cancer-free treatments for Tekauuri. It has been a difficult road to a thorough post-treatment examination.

But paying for a commercial airline ticket was one less thing to worry about. A network of volunteer pilots called Angel Flight West provides free transportation for Tekauuri to medical appointments off the island.

Tekauuri Tanaka and her parents are pictured with volunteer pilot Yosuke Tanaka (not related). (Provided by Angel Flight West/2023)

The Tanaka family is just one of dozens of local families dependent on the Hawaiian branch of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Angel Flight West, the fastest-growing group. .

This non-profit organization was founded in 1983 to bring the sick in the 12 westernmost states to out-of-reach medical facilities. The Hawaiian organization started her in 2003 and operated the first flight to bring women with breast cancer in Hilo to radiation treatments.

Hawaii volunteer pilots flew 122 missions last year, up from 15 in 2018. With an average one-way trip value of $606, the organization’s efforts in 2022 equate to $74,000 in in-kind donations for a total of 285 flight hours and 9,902 flight hours. I ran miles.

These numbers do not include seats donated through partnerships between Angel Flights and commercial airlines. Hawaiian Airlines donated 20 inter-island flights last year. Mokulele Airlines donated one plane.

Angel Flight is not a panacea. It is rather a stopgap measure. The organizers do not intend this organization to be the missing link in solving rural healthcare access problems in Hawaii.

“We play a key role in bridging the gap between home and health,” said Josh Olson, director of Angel Flight West. “But realistically, do you think Angel Flight will be able to meet all your transportation needs to medical institutions? Yes, on remote islands where people are seeing harmful consequences without receiving it, but I think we can help a lot more people than we do now.”

Tekauri Tanaka, 8, of Maui, has benefited from skipping a public airport to board Angel Flight West for cancer treatment. Crowds can pose health risks for cancer patients with weakened immune systems. (Provided by Angel Flight West/2023)

The challenge, Olson said, is that potential beneficiaries of Angel Flight don’t know enough about it. Networking with healthcare professionals is an important way for organizers to promote Angel Flight as an option for patients who struggle with financial or logistical hurdles to access treatment.

Hawaiian Airlines volunteer pilot Chad Holcombe said the organization has seen an increase in requests for medical flights from Moloka’i to Honolulu this year, with residents relying on air travel for routine care. there is The pandemic has worsened rural healthcare access, reduced flights to Molokai, and reduced the number of public airlines serving the island from three to one.

“When I started on Angel Flight, what really struck me was that some of the people I was on were suffering for years,” Holcomb said. “They just accepted that they were going to suffer for the rest of their lives because their insurance had run out and they had no other choice. I didn’t expect to be able to get medical help on the island.No other resource.”

A study released last July warned that access to healthcare was “particularly problematic” in rural areas such as Molokai and Lanai due to their geographical remoteness. The report was an online survey of 3,287 Hawaii residents and 324 health care providers.

“Approximately 70% of the care received by residents of Lanai and Molokai requires off-island travel, which is difficult and costly,” the report said.

For patients and their families, the cost savings go beyond the price of commercial airline tickets. Thanks to Angel Flight, the Tanaka family was able to spend more time together and didn’t have to arrive early at the airport to check in their luggage, get tickets or go through security. With Angel Flight, your family can skip all that hassle and be on the plane within minutes of departure.

Flying privately also reduces the health risks associated with traveling in crowded airports. This is a major concern for people with compromised immune systems.

“One day I sat down and calculated how many hours they had saved us because we literally drove to the plane and it was something crazy. Hundreds of hours. It was on,” said Kara Tanaka. “Having this support has made it so much easier for us to focus on being together as a family. What every cancer family wants is to be together.” I think.”

Bronwyn Cook, 76, of Molokai relied on volunteer pilots for daily transportation to and from radiation treatments in Honolulu. (Provided by Angel Flight West/2023)

There is no limit to the number of flights a patient can take. Passengers are required to prove financial necessity and provide a medical certificate proving that they are medically stable and physically able to board and disembark the aircraft without assistance.

The Group does not provide emergency travel. But it does offer flights for non-medical reasons, such as summer camps for burn victims and events for wounded veterans.

Bruce “Ace” Elinwood, Hawaii chapter president, said the organization plans to fly more missions this year than ever before. To keep up with this pace, the organization needs more volunteer pilots.

We also need cheaper access to aircraft. Some pilots own private planes, while others rent planes for mission flights, which is a limiting factor.

Twice in the last month, the organization did not have enough pilots or aircraft to meet requests for medical flights from Moloka’i patients who needed to go to hospitals in Honolulu, Erinwood said. It says. In both cases, the patients had to cancel appointments because there were no more seats available for purchase on Mokulele Airlines, the only commercial airline serving Molokai.

For Bronwyn Cook, 76, of Molokai, flying with Angel Flight has made it economical for her to go to Honolulu for daily radiation treatments to treat her sarcoma (a rare type of cancer). The burden has been reduced.

The treatment takes only about 15 minutes, Cook said. But considering the commercial air travel from Molokai to Honolulu and back, without Angel Flight, most of the day would be spent limping to and from these appointments. I guess.

Another option, staying in a hotel for seven weeks and receiving treatment every day would be prohibitively expensive.

“It’s not even about the money,” Cook said. “It means that someone who cares about you will pick you up and take you to treatment. It’s a problem.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Civil Beat health insurance is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, the Swain Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Cook Foundation.

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