Corporate aviation has recently received a lot of attention for its intensive efforts flying relief supplies and personnel to ease the devastation in Haiti. John Travolta even filled up his Boeing 707 with supplies and flew it down to help. All of which is terrific. But while colossal disasters and suffering get more attention, many people work to help alleviate suffering on a very private, daily level. The collective impact can sometimes be just as great when each disaster, and each act of kindness, happens on a personal scale.
Although it's such old news that it doesn't even make news anymore, 1.5 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year, and more than a third of that number die from the disease. In addition to the emotional and physical burden a cancer diagnosis imposes, there is a significant financial burden as well.
One study of insured, working women diagnosed with breast cancer found that their out-of-pocket and lost income costs while battling the disease ran from 26 percent to 98 percent of their monthly income. Two recent Harvard studies found that more than half of the bankruptcies in America stem from medical bills, even though more than three-quarters of those with a major illness who declared bankruptcy had insurance at the time of their diagnosis, and that the average out-of-pocket debt of a cancer patient with insurance still tops $35,000.
These burdens are onerous for anyone with cancer, but they are felt more acutely by cancer patients whose illness either proves intractable or is so rare that the only treatment options lie in distant cities.
Sarah Benalcazar, for example, was 8 months old when she was diagnosed with retinal blastoma — a rare cancer of the eye. She went through five rounds of systemic chemotherapy at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where she and her family live, but the treatments didn't work. The only option left was a kind of intra-arterial chemotherapy that only one doctor, at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, offered.
It's wrenching enough to imagine being told that your 8-month-old baby has cancer in both eyes. But Fernando Benalcazar, Sarah's father, was laid off a month after Sarah was diagnosed.
"Sarah was in and out of the hospital for weeks," says Brenda Benalcazar, Sarah's mother, "and we have another child, so it was hard for him to look for a job, and we were really struggling." The news that the only treatment with any hope for Sarah was in New York made the family's situation even tougher. They contemplated driving from Chicago to New York for the treatments. But then they discovered something called Corporate Angel Network.
Corporate Angel Network (CAN) was founded in 1981. It was founded by Leonard Greene, president of the Safe Flight Instrument Corp., whose wife had died of cancer, and two friends who had both battled and survived cancer: Priscilla Blum, a pilot, and Jay Weinberg, a local businessman. Blum and Weinberg came to Greene with an astoundingly simple idea.
"They showed my dad that the average load factor for a corporate aircraft was only 2.7 passengers, which meant a lot of corporate aircraft were flying around with empty seats," says Randy Greene, Leonard's son, who is now chairman of the board of Corporate Angel Network. "And they said, 'What if we could coordinate the travel needs of cancer patients with those available seats?'" Would Greene be willing to help set that up, using his aviation contacts?
Leonard Greene did one step better. He not only enlisted the help of his aviation friends and offered the use of his own corporate King Air 200 — with himself as the pilot — as the first participating company airplane, but he also turned over the entire $100,000 from his own charitable foundation to fund the new organization. Just like that, Corporate Angel Network was born.
Since then, Corporate Angel Network has grown significantly in size. Approximately 500 companies participate, and the network provides flights to an average of 200 cancer patients a month. (CAN patients have to be completely ambulatory and must need no medical care in flight.) But the network can still fulfill only about half of the flight requests it receives from cancer patients in need.
It's easy to have your eyes glaze over at the idea of a million and a half people suffering, regardless of whether it's in a deadly earthquake or after being diagnosed with a deadly disease. It's too many and too overwhelming. But you go to the Corporate Information page of CAN's website (corpangelnetwork.org) and click on the Seats Needed tab, and a list pops up that is strangely personal — strangely, because all it lists are the origins, destinations and dates of flight requests.
On the list, one day in January, request 17940 needed to go from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Phoenix sometime between Jan. 26 and 29. Request 17928 needed to go from Nashville, Tennessee, to Houston sometime between Jan. 29 and 31. Just numbers, dates and cities, but each line represents someone in need, asking for help. And despite all the efforts of the network, only half of them will be helped.