Lee Loughran's son Jordan, for example, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 2½ years old. He had his first bone marrow transplant, with his 6-year-old sister as the donor, in Atlanta, where the family lives. But the cancer came back two years later. Lee and her husband began looking for a trial of some kind of treatment that might be more effective. They found one at Sloan-Kettering in New York of a new leukemia-targeted chemotherapy that their son would undergo before another transplant was attempted — this time from an unknown donor.
The social worker at Sloan-Kettering hooked up the Loughrans with CAN, and they've been lucky enough to get flights for all of their trips to New York so far.
"Patients coming out of a transplant are incredibly vulnerable to germs," Loughran explains. "So flying on a commercial aircraft was out of the question for us. We looked at driving, but it's 18 hours to Atlanta, and kids who've had transplants are kind of fragile. So Corporate Angel flights were really a blessing."
Loughran notes that CAN also does more than just schedule the flights. CAN volunteers arrange for transport to and from the airport and make sure all the details and logistics are arranged and communicated well.
"It's kind of like having your mom make the arrangements," Loughran says with a laugh. "Everything is taken care of, down to the last detail."
Several of Jordan's flights were with Coca-Cola Enterprises, based in Atlanta. On one flight, the pilot came back to talk to Jordan with a special message. Bruce Chornock had been a captain for Coca-Cola for 15 years when he noticed a lump in his throat at the beginning of 2008. The lump turned out to be connected with metastatic squamous-cell carcinoma in his throat. He went through surgery and chemotherapy and finally got his FAA medical back on Christmas Eve 2008.
"This past spring, when I heard we had a kid going to New York for a bone marrow transplant on board, I went to talk to him, because I knew what he was going through," Chornock says. "My blood count went down during chemo, and I'd been at risk of infection, so they gave me a shot into my bone marrow to boost it. And it hurt. I felt awful. So I could only imagine how uncomfortable a whole bone marrow transplant would be for a 6-year-old boy.
"So I went back and told him, 'I want to tell you that, a year ago, I went through cancer too.' He wanted to know what kind I had, and he told me what he had. He was amazing, happy-go-lucky. He has matured quickly," Chornock says. "But I told him, 'Hey, I've gone through chemo and radiation, just like you — and I made it, and you're going to make it too. Just like I did.'" Chornock pauses for a moment to gather his voice. "Sorry," he tells me. "I still get choked up about it. But I just told him, 'You're going to be OK. You're going to be fine.'"
A theme from all the patients I talked to was both surprise and appreciation for how warm and caring their Corporate Angel executives and crews were. The amount of interaction isn't always the same — the patients all arrive at the airport an hour ahead of flight time and keep to themselves unless the other passengers want to engage in conversation. If the cancer patient is a child, both parents can travel as well. If the patient is an adult, one travel companion is allowed to fly along.
The CEO of Pepsico, who was taking a single mother and her 6-year-old cancer-stricken child along on a flight to Florida four years ago, arrived at the airport and "went over and just swept the two of them up with her into the Falcon," Greene says. That was CAN's 25,000th flight. Craig Clokey, the director of mission assurance for United Space Alliance, another corporate participant in the network, says when he got on board the first company flight that was carrying a CAN patient, he felt "a lot of pride that our company decided to engage in this."
Greene and Peter Fleiss, CAN's executive director, are constantly looking at how they can increase the number of flight requests CAN is able to fill. "We're talking to cancer centers to see if they could make appointments more flexible, and trying to talk to more corporate flight departments," Greene says.
Some of the trouble is scheduling, and the fact that some patients come from remote areas where few companies fly. In addition, not every executive wants to participate in the program. But Clokey scoffs at the last item. "If there's some kind of mystique to having a stranger or a cancer patient on board, people need to get over it," he says. "These people are just regular folks." And, he notes, "They're always appreciative, and really grounded, when you talk to them. You know they're going through some really tough circumstances, but whatever walk of life they come from, they don't allude to the fact that they're suffering."
On one flight carrying a CAN passenger between Florida and the company's Houston base, Clokey says, "I thought to myself, 'I'm going home. They're going to a lifeline.' And it's just neat that we can do something that makes a difference in their lives."