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Take Off Talk

Distance can be a major barrier to accessing quality healthcare in a timely manner. For patients, access to air transportation can make all the difference in getting the treatment they need. However, flights can be expensive, and putting off medical care because of costs can put you or your loved ones at risk. That's where Angel Flight East comes in.

Welcome to Take Off Talk with Angel Flight East, a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating free air transportation for children and adults with medical conditions who need treatment far from home. Our organization covers a 14 state footprint from Virginia to Ohio to Maine and for further distances, we partner with other public benefit flying organizations.  No matter how many times you need to get to your medical treatment or see a loved one in need, we are here to help. Unfortunately, few people know about free services like ours, and thus cannot use them when needed. We don't know how many people forgo medical care because they don't have accessible transportation, and that's what this podcast is here to change.

Saving Lives With Compassion And Grace With Passenger Sabra Wood

TTAFE - DFY 10 | Saving Lives

For our senior patients, getting to and from medical appointments can be challenging. When you add living alone to the equation, it becomes even more of a struggle. Our episode’s guest is all too familiar with this. Living alone at 73 years old while battling salivary gland tumors, Sabra Wood finds it very difficult to drive the four hours from home to Rochester for her appointments. Thankfully with Angel Flights, she gets the travel assistance she needs. Today, she shares with us her amazing experience with Angel Flight—not just on air but also on the ground. She talks about how much Angel Flight has helped turn something that could have been horrible into an adventure and the great people she has met along the way who treated her with grace and compassion. Tune in to this touching conversation with Sabra and discover how many lives Angel Flight has touched since.

 

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Watch the episode here

 

Listen to the podcast here

 

 

In this episode, we have a passenger with us, Sabra.

 

How are you?

 

We’re great. How are you?

 

I’m happy to be here.

 

Thank you so much for joining us. We’re super excited. This is the first time Maddy and I have seen you face to face. It’s always nice to put a face with a name.

 

TTAFE - DFY 10 | Saving Lives

 

It truly is.

 

To get started, can you tell us about your medical journey and how you found A5ngel Flight East?

 

I’ve been battling salivary gland tumors since the ‘80s. When we started, there weren’t MRIs available. They were measured manually and physically. MRIs were available but they couldn’t do digital comparisons. They would measure the image on the MRI and compare it. Now things are much more advanced. I had a number of surgeries but each one not successful.

 

The thinking changed to wait and see because my tumor, which turned into tumors, surrounded my facial nerve. With each surgery, there was more scar tissue and potential problems like losing movement of half of my face. I’ve been doing annual MRIs with my fabulous oncologist here in Rochester, New York. The last time I went in, he said, “There’s something that showed up that’s new and we don’t know what it is. It’s on the submandibular, under the mandible, and the jawbone.

 

We have options. We could operate, but that may force us to do something we wouldn’t want to do or we could do an ultrasound in a while and see what happens.” I thought back to Ann Arbor where I got my business degree. We receded in alphabetical order by last name, and seated next to me was Mary, who ended up becoming one of my best friends.

 

I called her and I said, “Does your sister still work at Memorial Sloan Kettering?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “We could have a problem.” She said, “I’ll get right back to you.” In three days, I had an appointment and I called my oncologist and said, “What do you think about a second opinion at Sloan Kettering?” He said, “Can you do that?” I said, “Yeah, I can.” He said, “I think that’s a great idea. They’d see a lot more of these than I do. I would love to know their protocol. That would be super.”

 

I thought, “This is coming together.” I was dealing with such nice people at Memorial Sloan Kettering and was wandering around their website and saw you could get assistance with your travel to and from MSK. I go, “That’s interesting.” I went through each of the websites, and one said that we’re based on need but not solely on financial need. I said, “That sounds good.”

 

The reason I was so interested in finding you is I’m 73 and I live alone. I have a 2004 car and I know that when I got the news at my local oncologist’s office, driving home was very difficult. I couldn’t imagine what state I might be in at the end of my Memorial Sloan Kettering appointment and driving home for four hours to Rochester.

 

TTAFE - DFY 10 | Saving Lives

Saving Lives: Driving home was very difficult. I couldn't imagine what state I might be in at the end of my Memorial Sloan Kettering appointment and driving home the four hours to Rochester.

 

I contacted your great organization and said, “What do you think?” They said, “It typically requires more time than we have.” I said, “I know. I only found out about it.” I managed to delay the appointment for a week, but still. They said, “Let’s give it a shot.” I got the forms in, which was easy, and then I got the good news that I was indeed going to get a flight to and from Rochester to Memorial Sloan Kettering in White Plains. I forgot the name of the real town, but it’s right there.

 

I think the town might be Farmingdale, but I forgot.

 

I think it’s East Harmon or something like that but who cares?

 

We still got you there. That’s what matters. How many flights have you officially taken with Angel Flight East?

 

Two.

 

This next question is going to be a doozy. Who’s your favorite?

 

The flight from Rochester to White Plains was this wonderful guy out of Buffalo. That morning, he flew from Buffalo to Rochester. I met him at the private airstrip and we talked about the flight. He said, “Right now, I can’t land in White Plains because of fog.” I said, “What happens if the fog is still there as we’re making our approach?” He said, “Let’s get in touch with Angel Flight.” I said, “We’ll tell them there is a contingency. Where do you think we would land?” He said, “Poughkeepsie is looking good.” I said, “How far is that?” He said, “It’s about an hour’s drive to White Plains.”

 

We called you guys and said, “Here’s the scoop and it’s looking like it could be tight. What can we do?” You amazingly arranged ground transport from Poughkeepsie to White Plains, and we were outside of White Plains, about maybe 45 minutes out. He said, “There’s still socked in. I think we need to make a call. We can circle and hope that we can land, which would maybe put you there on time, or land in Poughkeepsie, which would make you a little late. However, if we don’t move now, you’ll be late.” I said, “Let’s do Poughkeepsie.”

 

This is amazing. He texted his wife in Buffalo who called you and said, “They’re landing in Poughkeepsie. Can you have ground transport?” Sure enough, when we got down to Poughkeepsie, within ten minutes, ground transport showed up. It was a nice guy who used to live in White Plains. He knew exactly where we were going. I was ten minutes late. The great thing is I had been able to text my assistant who had called MSK and said, “Here’s the scoop. She’s coming but,” and they were all, “We’re so glad you’re here. This is fabulous.” How good is that?

 

I looked up who your pilot was and it was Bruce Morse-Ellington. We love him.

 

I love him too but he was on the return flight. Bruce was also adorable. He flew out of Baltimore and let me know when he hit the airstrip in White Plains. There was ground transport again from Memorial Sloan Kettering to White Plains Airport. I used to be in Corporate America and I did my share of private terminals, but this one was deluxe. It had little tesserae tiles and a beautiful interior.

 

"I used to be in corporate America and I did my share of private terminals, but Angel Flight was deluxe."

 

When my car drove up, it had this huge hangar-like building, but deluxe where they opened this rolling door and you pulled in because, heaven forbid, we have to step outside in the air. We didn’t want to do that. There he was. We had a little chitchat and he flew me back. We talked about one of Rochester’s claims to fame, Garbage Plates. It’s a restaurant dish and how much he loves Garbage Plates. It was great.

 

That sounds exactly like Bruce. I think he might have the driest sense of humor we’ve ever seen, but he is hilarious. He always is signing up for Angel Flights. We love him.

 

I love him too but I didn’t notice his sense of humor was dry. I’m not sure what that says about me.

 

I think it means you’re our kind of person.

 

In real life, I’m a potter. One thing I make are little ornaments with mugshots of people on them. I do a lot of musicians. I don’t know why they got arrested, but in talking with both of the guys before the flight, I said, “What kind of music do you love?” I took a little two pockets. I think it was Mahesh. One for Mahesh out of Buffalo and one for Bruce out of Baltimore. When I met them, I said, “Which of these guys do you like?” If they dither at all, I gave a both.

 

How would you say Angel Flight East has affected your life?

 

This is not the calmest period of my life by a long shot, but you guys removed one whole layer of anxiety. Not only did you do that, but you treated me so well with such compassion, grace, and good humor. It turned something that could have been horrible into an adventure. I am so thankful. I used to fly the corporate shuttle for Xerox between Rochester and White Plain.

 

I was used to that and I would routinely have markers and colored pencils in my briefcase because there would often be a family with a sick kiddo using the shuttle to get to and from an appointment. We would set them up with paper and drawing stuff. It was something painless that we could do. Flip to many years later and to find myself on the receiving end of care and empathy was wonderful.

 

If you hadn’t found us, how are you going to get to White Plains?

 

I was going to drive. I wouldn’t have been the world’s best driver going there and I think coming back, I probably would’ve booked another night in a motel to try to settle myself. The news wasn’t horrible. The news was, “You’ve got a great oncologist in Rochester. I’m signed up to review your images. He’s on the right track. We don’t know what the answer is, but we’re going about it the right way.” Short of a miracle and everything has disappeared. That was a pretty good message. It would’ve been difficult and I don’t drive my car long distances as it is. Did I mention it’s 2004 with 170,000 miles? To layer on that, the anxiety of where I was going and why seemed a little bit much.

 

Especially in New York City traffic, you never know what you’re going to get if it’s going to be an easy drive or a drive you never would like to do again.

 

The good news is that I would’ve been driving from Rochester, New York, where a three-minute delay makes radio news. If I was driving to White Plains, I wouldn’t have had to go into New York. Otherwise, I would’ve had to tap into an old college friend and say, “I’m going to be parking in your driveway and taking the train in,” I guess.

 

That sounds awful. For any potential passenger that’s reading this, can you talk about what it’s like to fly in a small plane for the first time?

 

I have a cognitive deficit, which makes orientation a little difficult. At my age, I’m not quite as limber as I used to be, but I wear my stickiest shoes that are good outside when it’s raining, which helps because with the help of your pilot, you’re climbing up some footholds and then up the wing and then getting into the plane, but I managed. Although I did find, given my shoes were so sticky, deplaning was easier to take them off, put them on the wing, and then step into them. I’m so silly.

 

It’s a little noisy, but you have headphones, and you’re in connection with the pilot the whole way. We can talk when they’re not talking to a tower, which is fascinating because you can see the different towers that are giving advice on the flight as you’re traveling. It’s not like you talk to the tower in Rochester and then you talk to the tower in White Plains. We were, a lot of the time, in connection with Logan in Boston, which was fascinating.

 

There are great views outside of the window, and because the weather was a little iffy, they were constantly changing speed and altitude to avoid icing, which was great. The only thing I would advise people to keep in mind is to bring some gum because it’s not a pressurized cabin and you’ll need to pop your ears but it was fabulous. The views were great. It was spectacular.

 

"Bring some gum because it's not a pressurized cabin, and you'll need to pop your ears."

 

Once people fly in a small airplane with us, I feel like they never want to go back to the large American Airlines or Delta flights like that because they’re not the same.

 

TTAFE - DFY 10 | Saving Lives

 

No, they’re not the same. Corporate travel is great. I got to tell you, you don’t wait in line. You don’t do TSA. You still get drinks. It’s uncrowded. It’s totally pleasant, but small planes are spectacular. They remind you that you are in a plane, you are in the sky, and you have a remarkably skilled pilot taking care of you.

 

Who would you say is in your support group besides us?

 

With you, does it even matter? There’s my friend Mary from business school and her fabulous sister, who was so remarkable to me. Also, there’s my oncologist, my assistant, and my local friends. It’s always interesting. Once a year on Instagram, I put a post with a visual of my MRI and talk about what my journey has been. Usually, it’s a celebration.

 

One year, it wasn’t. It was, “I don’t know, but what I know right now is I’m in good hands.” It’s always amazing to me that there are 100, 200, or 300 likes and tons of comments. People are coming out and supporting. It’s not something I talk about year-round. I’m a pretty private person, but the response is fabulous.

 

I need to follow you on Instagram now that you say that.

 

Do you also post your pottery creations?

 

I do.

 

We might need to order some from you because we love stuff like that.

 

I post lots of images of my cat because we are the only feline-owned business in Rochester, New York. I said, “Beckett, I’ve been working for you for years. I’m your only employee. In God’s name, what does it take to be an employee of the month?” “Girl, stop talking and work harder.” I’m like, “Thanks, Becks.”

 

I was going to ask who Beckett is and it’s the cat.

 

It’s the cat. She’s a local star. She is featured in several of our creations. When I take our mugs to the local museum to deliver them, she often insists on going. She doesn’t trust me to do it well. She’s a girl. She’s a cat. She’s calico. What can you do?

 

If you end up flying with us again, we’re going to have to make sure you fly with our volunteer pilot, Andy. We interviewed him and he is a huge cat person. You guys would get along perfectly.

 

We would get along so well. These days, everyone I come in contact with gets my little rainbow kitten button. It is indeed starring you know who.

 

It’s good old Beckett.

 

She is so smart, beautiful, funny, and naughty. How did you find this wonderful organization? How long have you been there? What’s it like for you?

 

I originally found Angel Flight in 2018. I found it through my mother, like every other good thing that comes into your life. It is always stemming from your mother. My mom, for fun, taught a fitness class at the local YMCA. One of the people who religiously took her class is our executive director Ellen, and because they had been friends for so long, Ellen got to know my sisters and me. Ellen knew I was graduating from college. She asked if I had a job lined up yet.

 

TTAFE - DFY 10 | Saving Lives

 

My mom was like, “No, but she wants one. What have you got?” The next morning, I was woken up to my mom throwing pamphlets at my bed telling me, “You need to call her.” That’s my story. I was originally hired as the flight coordinator. I was David. I connected all the pilots to the patients and I did all that fun stuff. COVID came and took us with it. I switched over to the outreach side of things then, but I love it.

 

Madeline, that’s a great story. Jessica, how about you?

 

I’ve been with Angel Flight for many years now. I am their top Craigslist find. I found the job posting on Craigslist for their programs and events coordinator. I started there and then worked my way up to outreach and events director. I thought it would be my first job out of college, but I got hooked. I can’t say enough good things because you can leave work every day and know that you had a small part in helping people get to treatment that they might not otherwise be able to get to.

 

You save lives is what the two of you do. All of you do that.

 

TTAFE - DFY 10 | Saving Lives

 

That’s amazing. Thank you. We try hard here.

 

It was such a positive experience. I also must say that Memorial Sloan Kettering, I’ve never had such a great medical experience in my life. Every single person I encountered saw me. At my age, you tend to be a little invisible, but they saw me and they would stop what they were doing and say, “How’s it going? Do you need anything? Can I help with anything?” It didn’t matter what their jobs were. They acknowledged my existence at every step along the way, and it was amazing.

 

We fly a handful of patients to Sloan Kettering and I think the benefit they have is their resources on the website are easy to find. Whereas in some other hospitals, they can be a little bit buried. People may not be getting to their care because they think they don’t have a way to get there and they just give up, which is unfortunate.

 

From the first time that I called, I had someone managing my case and he gave me his direct dial. Any wrinkle at any point, he was there to fix it. It’s astonishing.

 

That’s the best. Once you find somebody who’s invested as part of your team, it makes the journey so different.

 

It surely does. As I was hurrying into Memorial Sloan Kettering for my appointment, I looked up and blinked hard because I saw this vision coming down the hallway. I blinked hard because it was Barb. It was Mary’s sister, but I was like, “Sabra, you’re stressed. Barb works in Manhattan at MSK. She’s not here.” She then came up and said, “Sabra, how are you?” I said, “What are you doing here?” She said, “There was a little construction in Manhattan and I thought it was a good reason to work out of here now.” I was like, “You trickster.” That was pretty fabulous. Everyone that I encountered, I would say, “Whatever you do, please tell Barb that I was well-behaved.” One great guy said, “I’ll do that if you tell her I was also.” I said, “Deal.”

 

What is one final thought you would want to leave our readers with?

 

We live in a time of fabulous medical research and medical care, but it’s not always accessible to everyone. Organizations like yours can break down barriers and make it so it’s not simply for the rich or for the person who’s fortunate enough to live within a close distance of a renowned medical facility. I would tell everyone that there’s a lot in this journey that we cannot control and do not know that is uncertain. However, dealing with you is one of the certainties and you will do whatever you can to make world-class medical care accessible to all of us.

 

Thank you. I felt the tears coming on and I didn’t want to cry.

 

Sabra, I’m trying to keep you. Do you want to come with us on other trips too?

 

Yes. I think that you need to tell Angel Flight that you need to go into the field up close and personal with those you serve. We’ll go and have Garbage Plates together. You can say to Bruce, “We had Garbage Plates too.”

 

What is a Garbage Plate?

 

Garbage Plate is the brainchild of a restaurant called Nick Tahou, which is renowned for celebrity dining because musical acts come to town. They finish up at 11:00. At midnight, there’s no place open, but Nick is open. It’s a combination. I think it started with a white-hot, which is a bratwurst, some baked beans, mac salad, coleslaw, fries, and slices of bread piled onto a plate. It’s a garbage plate.

 

We could get Bruce to fly us there.

 

I bet he would.

 

I have an idea.

 

It could be fun. I told Bruce the next time he was in town to check in and I would take him someplace fabulous because Rochester has lots of great places.

 

Twist our arm. I am always up, especially if you include French fries.

 

Let’s do this. We should make it on a Thursday night. I should reverse tables and have you on my radio show.

 

That would be fun.

 

Would that be fun or what?

 

Sign us up.

 

We’re in.

 

We talk about anything you want to talk about, play the music you love and have fun.

 

We’re coming.

 

We’re sold. We’re going to call Bruce.

 

We have to meet Beckett.

 

You must meet Beckett. She’s much more interested in people coming through the door than she is in me because there’s always the possibility that they’ll be superior servants. She interviews everyone. She’s like, “It’s a nice house. Come on and move here. We’ll deal with her later.” That’s Beckett.

 

You let us know what Thursday you want us and we’re coming.

 

I will clear the schedule. You look into it. Talk to Bruce.

 

We definitely will. We’re going to have to call him. Sabra, it was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for sharing your story and spending your time with us.

 

This was a lot of fun. Again, I truly appreciate all that you do. You so made a difference in my life.

 

You make a difference in ours because I have goosebumps. I love starting my morning like this. We’ll see you later.

 

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