A patient deserves to be cared for, even beyond the hospital walls. At Angel Flight, patients receive VIP treatment on air! This episode’s guest, Sandy Smith, testifies with her experience. Sandy has not had the easiest medical journey, having had to go to multiple facilities. Driving across great distances is just not an option. Then she found Angel Flight, and her journey has never been the same since. Sandy tells us the things she loved about the organization and the great people who have gone above and beyond to make everything comfortable for her. She then stops your worries by sharing her experience flying in a small airplane, assuring you of the great assistance Angel Flight provides to patients. Learn more about flying with Angel Flight as you take off with Sandy!
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You are our second guest for our show. Sandy, if you are comfortable, can you tell us a little bit about your medical journey and how you found Angel Flight?
I had difficulty through the years. Vanderbilt was the third major medical facility that I've been sent to for the autonomic nervous system disease that I have. There was no way at the time. My only sister that can drive that far was sick. I didn't see how I was going to be able to get up there. With my spine in the condition it was in, I couldn't make the journey by vehicle anyway and by automobile.
I was talking with my navigator, Kathleen, at United Healthcare. I said, “You've worked so hard to get this approved. Now, I have no way to get there.” She started digging and came up with Angel Flight and two other organizations. The other organizations could not handle me. When I called Angel Flight, I was told that you would accommodate a flight for me and do it at the time that I needed. We went from there.
I want to say a big thank you to your organization for having the compassionate dedicated people that you have. Some of my flight situation through this was made difficult because of a storm that was moving in. With smaller airplanes, they can't fly if there's moisture in the air and the temperature is too cool because of ice getting on the wing flaps. They can't land.
David worked with me. I had been in the hospital for a week at Vanderbilt University. I had to stay over the day that I got out of the hospital because I had to go back to the heart center for a test. That threw us into the next day where a really bad sister was coming through. David worked from I don't know what hour of the morning. Bless his heart. He said, “We will get you home, Miss Smith. Don't you worry about it,” and they did.
Every one of the pilots that have flown me has been the most fantastic person. They make the journey a joy. They take care of your needs when you get there. All of you have a good name out there because when they hear Angel Flight, the airport is like, “We're going to take care of you. They've done their part. We'll do our part.” It has been such a blessing to me. I cannot tell you how thankful I am for your organization and what you do.
We won't tell them if you have a favorite pilot, but do you have a favorite story about an Angel Flight that you want to tell the audience?
Absolutely. Is it all right if I say the pilot's name?
Yeah. Go right ahead. Give him a shout-out.
Zalman Joffe has flown me several times because I've had to go up there several times. I was really nervous. I haven't flown that much and have never flown in the smaller aircraft. He has all these pictures on his phone where he has traveled to 48 states. It was like a vacation for me. I got to see all of these areas and everything. They are people-oriented people. They want to make the journey as nice and comfortable as they possibly can.
"The people at Angel Flight are really people-oriented. They want to make the journey as nice and comfortable as they possibly can."
I have arthritis all over my body. The first time we flew, I didn't have the little step stool to help me get up in the airplane. We had to try several different positions. He was so caring and compassionate. He said, “Don't feel bad about it. This isn't the first time and it won't be the last time somebody had a little difficulty.” The next time that he flew me, he had gone and purchased a little fold-up stool because, with your luggage and everything that they have to carry, they only have so much storage room. I got right up in that plane like I was a pro.
You're a pro now.
Money can't buy that. The treatment that you receive from your organization and the people that work with you is priceless.
Where do you fly from? Is it Virginia or West Virginia?
It’s Lynchburg, Virginia. We got to go over the mountains. Mr. Joffe told me, “You are going to feel some bumps in the road, but it will be like a bumpy road that you go over.” Honestly, to me, it was less than what you would receive in a vehicle on the road. I got to looking and picking out things. He would show me things, and then as we went up and he's sitting there, you'll get to see coming back the view that I'm getting. I learned how to find schools because of the baseball fields, track runs, tennis courts, and things like that. It was so enjoyable. I couldn't believe how quickly the time passed. We had a difficult headwind coming at us, so it took us about an hour longer to get there, but I told him, “I'm having fun.”
It sounds like you might be one of our Angel Flight pilots one day because you are an expert at flying.
I wish I could. He did, in fact. He showed me and said, “If I hold a finger up, don't say anything because I've got to hear what the air traffic control is saying.” He is such a cut-up. He knew that a jet was going to be going up. I was looking out the side for all my stuff and trying to find me some horses to see because we were traveling over some. That's something you don't get with a big jet on farms. He tapped me on the knee and said, “Look.” I nearly had a heart attack. I was like, “We're not going to get over?” He said, “No.”
How many times have you flown with Angel Flight?
Mr. Joffe took me up. In fact, he had never been to Nashville. He stayed over. He was the one that brought me back in November 2022. In January 2023, I had to go up. He took me then, and that's when I was put in the hospital. Coming back, they could only get me because of the weather that was coming in. There was a young man named Jeremy. He had one of his work friends, Todd, to come with him.
He had a meeting at the Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport. They got me that far, and then one of your people kept on until they found somebody that could take me the rest of the way. Jeremy had Todd, and Todd hadn't flown in a plane like that either. He said, “Do you see this right here on this computer? That's two planes flying under us.” I said, “You're a rascal.” Todd looked like a robot. He got so still and his little hand was shaking. He said, “Are you sure we're going to be okay?”
When we got to the airport, Jeremy went to his meeting. The airport furnished us with a complimentary vehicle. He took me out to lunch. When I came back, the airport there put me in a room with a TV and a private bathroom. I was so tired that I had been in the hospital for eight days and then I had to stay over and go back to the heart center. When I got in there, I said, “What a wonderful leather couch.” I laid my head back. Every now and then, one of the girls there would come in to check on me. She said, “You snored yourself to death.”
It sounds like you got the VIP treatment.
I'm telling you. All you got to do is say Air Angels and they're like, “We're going to do our part to make it very comfortable for you.” She came in there. The young lady at the airport said, “Your pilot's here.” I said, “I better get my act together.” It was Mr. Joffe. I will say this. I don't know if you'll have to cut it out or not. My sister was praying because she thought I was going to have to stay over there in that area.
"At Angel Flight, you get the VIP treatment. All you have to do is say Air Angels and they are going to do their part to make it very, very comfortable for you."
It would be seven days for that weather to pass through to the point where one of your pilots could come and get me from there. She said, “I kept praying, “Let Mr. Joffe look at his messages. Let him see his messages.” Mr. Joffe said, “Something hit me. I need to check my messages.” He then said, “That's my Ms. Smith. I'll have to go get her,” and he did. Bless his heart. He came and got me. I asked him if it was all right if I called to make sure that he got home okay and he said yes.
We love when pilots and patients create these friendships. I feel like that's one of our favorite parts of Angel Flight.
You've got some fine people. Jeremy, Todd, the type of plane that I had to get up on the wing, and because of arthritis in my right knee that I injured, I went down and looked up. Todd said, “Don't get excited. We're two big strapping young men and we're strong.” Jeremy was behind me on the other side. He said, “I'm going to pull. Todd, you push.” He did and I went kaboom in that seat. Jeremy said, “Todd, do you know your own seat?” Todd said, “I didn’t want to go through the other side.” I said, “Jeremy, don't say anything. You got me in here in one piece. I’m thankful.” Whatever you have, you make it fun.
We have to call this airport and see if they have video camera footage because I would love to see that.
This is awful. When I saw Mr. Joffe coming into the airport, I ran and hugged him. I said, “Did I break anything else?” I was so glad to see him and know that I was going to go home. I was so homesick. He said, “It’s okay.”
Your sister was the only person who was capable of driving you. If she wasn't around and you didn't have us, what were you going to do?
I wasn't going to be able to make my appointment after all that Kathleen had done. Dale here helps us get the services coordinated that we need. She told me, “They are the most helpful people I believe I have ever worked with in trying to get something.” People don't realize what is involved in a flight like that, especially going over mountains, the weather, the wind, and everything, but you've got some experts. They know exactly what to do and when to do it.
You're going to be a great spokesperson for us one day. I can tell.
I told Dale, “You make sure that you keep all that information because I live in an independent senior apartment complex. For many people, their families are gone. They're on their own. When they need something like this, they can't go by themselves.” When I was in the condition that I was in going to the hotel, Mr. Joffe talked to them. There was a young man there. He knew I was afraid. When I went in November 2022, I had an aide with me but I didn't have one in January 2023. He checked on me every couple of hours. He said, “You are like my mother. If my mother was somewhere like this, I would want someone to check on her.”
They all worked together. It's an awesome team of caring and precious people that's been put together to get you where you need to go. You don't have to be afraid. You don't have to worry about anything because they're going to look out for you. I had a double stroke. It messed up my thought process and my memory. They looked out for me like I was a two-year-old child. Pretty much, when it comes to things like that, I am.
Typically, Jess and I travel together to go to conferences, presentations, and things like that. I'm going to replace Jess with you. You sound like you'll be a much better companion.
Be prepared for a lot of weird things to happen in West Virginia.
I do like the back roads, personally.
I've been that route, too, going to the University of Toledo in Ohio to a specialist up there. West Virginia has some roads where you meet yourself coming.
West Virginia is one of our favorite states to visit, specifically Beckley, West Virginia. Everybody is so nice and welcoming there but they know that we are not locals. It’s like you walk in somewhere and they turn around like, “Why are you here from Philadelphia?”
It is like the DJ disc skips a little bit as soon as the door opens with us walking in.
You find, and I have through this, that there are a lot of wonderful people out there that love to help others. I try to return it doing what I can. It's over Facebook mostly. If I can encourage somebody in some way, it means a lot to me. I'll guarantee you one thing. I felt like I had a cheering section behind me to get me there safely and enjoyably. That's the way it went down.
Can you explain what it's like to fly in a small airplane for anybody who may not be familiar?
It is not having compression. Truly, that was better for me with what I have going on. It is then being able to see and enjoy the areas that you're traveling over. You don't get that in the larger planes. Honest to goodness, we went through clouds. We went through the rain and the wind, but you didn't feel it. We were through the clouds so quickly. I was waiting for it to break and see, “Where are we now?” I knew a little bit after that first trip and the second trip.
To me, it's like going up in a helicopter. You don't have all that noise because you don't even hear the propeller with the headsets on. You get to enjoy the scenery and the pilots because they're something special. It's a wonderful journey. I told Mr. Joffe, “I don't know what I was afraid of, but never again.” If I can share that with anybody, they will enjoy themselves.
In one of the airports that we had to stop at for Mr. Joffe to refuel, we had a crosswind that was out of this world. These people know what they're doing. He said, “This may be a little rough,” and all I felt that time was the touchdown. I said, “If this is all we have rough, then you are a baby if you can't take this.” I always felt safe. I felt comfortable in each airport that we stopped at, even that little airport. It was in Sevierville, Tennessee.
I love it there. Our last question for you is if there are any final thoughts that you want to leave our audience with.
Don't wait to call. If you need help, it's there. It's fantastic assistance. You’ll be taken care of as if you were a family member. Even if you're on your own, you don't have to be afraid. I'd like for them to know that.
I feel like so many people are unaware Angel Flight or public benefit flying organizations are even an option. As much as we can get the word out, it's so helpful because you don't know how many people may not be getting to their medical care because they think they don't have a way to get there.
If it hadn't been for Kathleen at United Healthcare after those other two organizations had turned me down, I wouldn't have known about Angel Flight and tried you all. My cardiologist desperately needed the assistance that Dr. Muldowney at Vanderbilt was able to give him. I needed to get there for the care. I was like, “Why ever go buy a car when you can go with Air Angel?”
You can fly like Kim Kardashian.
I wouldn't miss your pilots for anything in the world. They are super people.
They're pretty spoiled.
I’ll tell you. You have gotten together a wonderful group of people to work and see that it's done. I don't know how in the world you do what you do. My situation made it very difficult for Air Angel by me missing that flight the day that I got out of the hospital because I had to go back. Rearranging it in less than 24 hours was mission impossible.
I thought, “Lord, it's going to be me and the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt for about a week.” My sister was crying and I was crying. I said, “At least I got a roof over my head. I'll be okay.” I got the call and was like, “How in the world did you do what you did?” I thank you for taking the time and effort and working so hard and diligently to get me home.
We're happy to do it anytime for as long as you need. I'm sure you know that already.
I've got an appointment coming up in November 2023. They need me to go back because they found some neurological problems with this disease that we never even knew about. That's with going to Ohio, Raleigh-Durham, and Duke. I was sent to the right place at the right time. That's all I can say. That wouldn't have happened had it not been for your great organization. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
This is a perfect way to start our day.
I have little goosebumps.
I have a whole lot of a better life because I got to go up there, and for that, I’m very thankful and grateful.
Thank you so much. We're so appreciative of you sharing your story and your morning with us. If you're ever in Philadelphia, we'll come pick you up.
We'll also pick you up in Lynchburg. We look for any reason to leave the office.
Tell them you got to get out there and get the word spread.
I know. We have to get to Virginia. We don't go there as often as we should.
If you do and you're anywhere close by, let me know.
You're on our list.
We’ll stop by.
You girls are great. Thank you so much.
Thank you again.
I’m never nervous. You put me at ease. I’d hate it for you to have to use this ugly mug to do it, but if I can help somebody through you all, I would do whatever you ask.
You're the bomb. We appreciate you.
We appreciate you, too.
Thank you. Have a great day.
Thank you to your helper for setting this all up with you.
Tamika is such a blessing. I told her, “You should get paid more by the hour because not only do you have to help me body-wise, but you have to be my brain.”
Thank you so much. Have a good day.
You girls have safe travels. Enjoy yourself.
We will. We'll stay out of trouble.
Sandy reminds me of my Aunt Gertrude.
I was thinking the same thing.
I was like, “I bet she would make a great pie as Aunt Gerty did.”
We didn't even get Aunt Gerty's pie. For the readers wondering about who Aunt Gerty is, Jess’ dad signed us up to go and meet Jess's great Aunt Gerty in Beckley, West Virginia. We couldn't find her house because three houses shared the same driveway. Jess went to all three of them to knock and find Aunty Gerty. I, like the good best friend I am, stayed in the car.
She said, “It's probably not a safe idea to walk through strangers’ yards in West Virginia, but I'm here to tell the story.”
We listened to a murder podcast the whole way there.
I know, but I usually fall asleep so I don't hear the whole thing.
This is why.
For all of our readers, in our first episode, we were thinking about it after, if you don't know who we are, we wanted to give a little bit of background on how we found Angel Flight and how we have become Thelma & Louise. We still have not watched the video, so I have no idea who is Thelma and who is Louise. I found Angel Flight probably a couple of years ago on Craigslist. I would probably not recommend looking for a job on Craigslist in 2023, but it worked out.
I am the Outreach and Events Director for Angel Flight, so I work a lot primarily with Maddie. We travel to a lot of rural healthcare conferences to get the word out about Angel Flight. As we were telling Sandy, there are so many people that, unfortunately, don't know about it still so we try to get the word out as much as we can to help more patients in need.
I have been with Angel Flight East since 2018. I joined Angel Flight originally right after I graduated college because my mom was our executive director's spinning instructor. She came home from the gym one morning to tell me that she found me a job and it was me being the Flight Coordinator for Angel Flight East. I was the liaison between pilots and patients, making sure that everybody got where they needed to go.
I took a reprieve in 2021 maybe because I thought that the grass was greener. I thought that I could get paid more and be happy in the for-profit world. That's a lie. I was miserable. My mom called Ellen and asked her to take me back, so I came back and I make more money. I used my degree, all things that I was aiming for. I do community outreach with Jess. I'm the one who's giving educational conversations to community organizations. I give presentations and show off Angel Flight at conferences. I do all of our social media.
When Maddie first started as our flight coordinator, she was given a little bit of a test and had to be my helper at Wings on Wheels. I was like, “What if I don't like this girl?” We ended up becoming pretty close pretty quickly, only because we had to share a hotel room when we weren't friends yet. She got to see the true me, which is I am the person who unpacks my suitcase right away when I lived somewhere for even a day. She forced me to be her friend by getting us matching lobster pants that we had to wear at a conference. The rest is history.
We're happy that you guys are here. We're so excited to keep this going. Please give us any feedback that you come up with. We are happy to hear all about what you guys are thinking. Unless it's mean, then keep it to yourself.
We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Sandy. We are looking forward to sharing more stories from our patients and volunteer pilots with you.