"The metric I instituted a long time ago, in terms of how successful I think we're being, is: When someone calls and asks for a ride, what's the percentage of the time we can do it?" Randy Greene says. "Over the years, we have moved from 10 percent to 50 percent — partly because the network has expanded, but a lot of that is also technology driven."
What Greene means is that, when CAN started, the means for matching corporate flight schedules with patients was by phone, paper and fax. Companies would fax their flight schedules when seats were available, and CAN would try to match that with paper patient requests.
Today, the process is much easier. For one thing, corporate flight departments can just scan the Seats Needed page of CAN's website to see if their flight schedules match any of the dates and locations on the list. Regular participants also e-mail their upcoming flight schedules to CAN volunteers (there are 50 of them in the CAN offices), and the volunteers will then try to match patients' computer requests for flights. Because half the patient requests are still unfilled, patients requesting CAN flights must have back-up transportation arranged.
"It used to be easy to get airline seats that could be switched," Greene says. "Now it's really hard, and that's tough." So far, he says, CAN has not been able to get the airlines to give patients refundable tickets at less than a full coach fare. The patients I talked to, however, were just grateful for the help when they could get it.
Beth Holt, a 44-year-old mother, was diagnosed in December 2008 with a rare form of multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer that more typically occurs in African-American men over the age of 60 and is diagnosed in only 10,000 people a year. She was told she needed to have a bone marrow transplant. Holt lives in Florida, but her doctor wanted her to go to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for the procedure.
The transplant required a number of visits, and each time Holt had an appointment, she made a reservation on Southwest Airlines, because Southwest allowed her to roll the ticket over to a future flight without a penalty if a CAN flight worked out. As it turned out, CAN was able to fly her to about half of her appointments, which Holt considers a huge gift.
"I'm just very thankful. If it weren't for people giving, it would be so much more of a burden," she says. "It helped make it possible for me to pay my bills. And while I flew with several different crews, they were all so nice." She pauses for a moment, thinking. "And so … warm," she adds. "That was really helpful."
Greene understands. "I think one of the reasons patients love [the CAN flights] so much is just that it's an indication of some stranger caring," he says. "A lot of people say that's a factor in their cure."
Holt was given a transplant of her own harvested bone marrow, which had been cleaned of most of the cancer cells through chemotherapy. Although the illness is now beaten down, it's not gone. She is not cured. She will live with her cancer, waiting and watching to see if or when it flares up again. I ask how she deals with that kind of unending uncertainty.
"I don't look at it like that," she answers. "I don't think I've ever sat down and cried 'poor pitiful me.' When something like that actually happens to you, you just kind of go into survival mode and say, 'OK, that's what the deal is; let's do this. Let's get it taken care of.'" This is, I suppose, more reinforcement of the idea that we cope with uncertainty and adversity far better than we fear we will, when we're actually in the middle of it. Humans are amazing when it comes to prioritizing and focusing for survival. That might be why we've been around as long as we have.
"I say it's been joyful, and people don't understand what I mean," Holt says with a smile. "But amazing things have happened, along the way, to give me what I needed when I needed it. I'm very thankful for that."
Finding a company only 1½ hours from her home that did a lot of business in Houston and flew there regularly, and was willing to take her along, was one of those amazing things — especially, she says, when she came home after her transplant.
Indeed, the reason a corporate flight is such a big deal to cancer patients undergoing treatment isn't just the cost savings. It's also that cancer treatments, from transplants to chemotherapy, tend to ravage a person's immune system. And flying from a private airport FBO on a small plane, point to point, can be a literal lifesaver to a patient whose immune system is weakened.