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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.

Facing Colon Cancer With Passenger Christie Neeld

TTAFE - DFY 25 | Colon Cancer

At 44 years old, Christie Neeld was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in September 2021. Because of Angel Flight, her medical journey was made possible, and her healing process progressed. She shares how the process of getting well from cancer is full-time work. Her attitude towards facing cancer is remarkably amazing because she finds the flip side of it. Be inspired by Christie Neeld as she takes off with Angel Flight today.

 

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Watch the episode here

 

Listen to the podcast here

 

In this episode, we have our passenger, Christie, with us.

Christie, if you're comfortable, tell our audience about your medical journey and how you found Angel Flight East.

I can't believe it but it was a few years ago. I was 44 years old. I was diagnosed in September 2021 with advanced colon cancer. I can't believe everything that unraveled and has happened in the past few years. The number one thing that everybody asks me, and I like to get this message out, is everybody always says, “How did you know?” I wasn't even at the age yet where they recommend colonoscopies.

Believe it or not, this whole diagnosis all came from me craving for ice. I was addicted to ice. If that ever happens to anyone, I always want someone to know that's not normal. That's what got the ball rolling. It was my third blood test and it finally showed that my ferritin was extremely low and all the numbers were extremely low. I was borderline needing to go to the hospital.

That’s interesting that somebody could crave ice.

 

TTAFE - DFY 25 | Colon Cancer

 

It was relentless and so overwhelming so much that my youngest would say, “You can't help me with homework because you're so annoying chewing that ice.” I would go out of my way. It started with Wawa Ice and then I advanced to Chick-fil-A ice. It was so bad. From what I understand, the baseball size tumor in my colon was like a little vampire sucking my blood. If you're craving things that are out of the ordinary like ice, paper, and weird things, which I only craved ice, was a sign of anemia. It is crazy.

You are receiving care where? When you first found out about this diagnosis and you have this baseball-sized tumor, where did you go first?

I started the majority of my journey at Main Line Health. When my doctor said, “We have to find the source of bleeding. This is not normal,” one of the things I had to do was go get a colonoscopy. Thank goodness the GI doctor was affiliated with Main Line Health. You wake up from your colonoscopy and they tell you right there while you're half asleep still what they found.

That's a wake-up call.

I was like, “Go get my husband. Tell him what you said to me. This is so silly.” She was affiliated with Main Line Health. Luckily, we have one of the best colorectal surgeons in the country at Lankenau. That's where I started. I was always treated for the first two years. I can't believe it. For two years, I went through the Main Line Health systems. I had 4 surgeries in the 2 years. The majority of them are at Lankenau. I would always get second opinions at Penn and everywhere else.

The oncologists are amazing. My Penn oncologist said, “We would do the same thing for you. Go to Main Line Health. It's right down the street from you. You're going to be sick from chemo.” They're a great team. In my first year, I was on chemotherapy and then it came back. I had another operation and then I went to immunotherapy. I was on that stable for a whole year and then it came back in two spots.

At that point, I always knew I wanted another opinion at Dana-Farber in Massachusetts in Boston. That was not something easy to do at all because of the distance and expense. I would always put that on the back burner. Once it came back again in August 2022, I made the switch to Fox Chase in Philadelphia. They're also the ones who recommended me to get another opinion at Dana-Farber because what I have is called Lynch syndrome. That's the genetic component of colon cancer. They have the number one Lynch Institute in Boston.

I didn't realize that there were all these offshoots.

A lot of people haven't heard about Lynch so it's very difficult to find doctors anywhere throughout the country that is familiar with it. To make the long story short, I started with Main Line Health. They took amazing care of me. I had three surgeries there, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. I'm new to Fox Chase. I had my surgery with Fox Chase. I'm also a patient with Dana-Farber. Thanks to you, guys.

You flew with us not long ago. How was your first flight? You flew home in a King Air, which was like celebrity status.

My husband and I cannot stop talking about it. There's a whole world out there that we had no idea. I had no idea there were so many airports from here to Boston. It was incredible. I'm obsessed.

You posted about it on Facebook. Somebody I used to hang out with screenshotted it and sent it to me. She was like, “I had no idea this is what Angel Flight did.” She saw it through her brother-in-law's Facebook that you're connected with. I was like, “What a small world.”

We could not stop asking you guys, our pilots, Dave, and everybody, “What can we do for you?” Every single one of you throughout the entire journey both ways said, “Spread awareness.” That's my mission to do. For two years, I put going to visit Boston on the back burner. You know all the reasons why. I am recovering from surgery, I'm sick from chemo, or I already feel guilty enough that I should be saving for my teenagers’ college and cars. We're trying our best to spread awareness about this. I'm telling every doctor and nurse that I talk to. I'm shocked that not a lot of people know.

We're shocked that so many people don't know. Even though we've had some people come to us and say they've been flying for 6 months to 1 year, we’re like, “How did nobody tell you about not just us but any Angel Flight organization along the way of your traveling?”

It's a real thing. I got six second opinions. One of my second opinions was over in Jersey at Cooper for MD Anderson. I was recovering from surgery. It took me days to bounce back from a car ride to Jersey. Flying with you guys was so much easier than that.

That's the best. That's what we're here for. We like to make people's lives easier, not harder despite what some people may think.

 

TTAFE - DFY 25 | Colon Cancer

 

You guys are living that mission.

How has Angel Flight East affected your life?

I felt like it was a hassle to call these doctors. It is full-time work to do this cancer thing. I still consider myself very healthy. This was so eye-opening how easy this entire process was. In two years, this was the easiest thing ever. I feel like it flipped my optimism. It got me back like, “This is not such an issue to go take care of myself.” It changed my perspective back to the old me.

 

"It is full-time work to do this cancer thing."

 

Can you also talk to us a little bit about when you first found us, were you like, “You want me to get in a what and go to the where,” kind of moments? Since we're not flying you into the Boston Logan or out of the Philly Internationals and there's you and your husband in the plane with the pilot, what was your first initial reaction hearing about the flights that we do?

I was not focused on that a whole lot. I was more like, “This can't be real. Why would they do this? This is not real. This can't be free.” I have to tell you that I filled out the For More Information form online and Dave, your coworker, called me within five minutes. I remember looking at my phone like, “What is happening? Why is Angel calling?”

I was more caught up in that. I have been in a small helicopter before so that was good. It was on a vacation, like a fun thing. I did say to my husband, “Are you going to be a wimp about this? Are you going to be okay flying in this little thing?” He goes, “Before we were married, I jumped out of a plane like that.” He went skydiving. I did get the butterflies when we pulled up at the wings. I was like, “I got to get in this little thing.” It was fine though.

What sealed the deal for you when you were like, “I'm going with Angel Flight?” There was no question out of your mind.

I prayed. I kept thinking, “There's going to be some loophole.” I felt like I hit the lottery. That's when it changed. I was like, “This is my path. Everything's going to be okay.” Before that, from August 2022 until October 2023, when you flew me, I was so annoyed that I had to do this. All fell into place. Thanks to you, guys.

A couple of years ago, we had somebody call our executive director, not believing that it was a legitimate service. She had to go meet with her face-to-face and be like, “The pilots cover all costs and you won't get a bill afterward.”

There are so many scams out there, and noes and bad news in this cancer world that I do believe it.

It’s different. We're so happy that we got to be a part of everything that you've gone through. We're such a little, itty bitty bit of it but still knowing that we're in your corner at any point is my favorite part personally.

 

TTAFE - DFY 25 | Colon Cancer

 

It's so comforting. The other thing I thought was, “Is this worth it? I don't want to use my one chance to fly.” Dave and I started researching more and I was like, “People do this more than once? Why are they allowing that?”

If anything, I feel like we're looking for more patients. All of our pilots are like, “Can I go now? Is there something for me to do now?”

They’re lining up.

That is so lovely. I'll keep going.

A pilot came into Jess's office and was like, “These are my days that I'm off here. Do you need me? Do you have something for me to do?”

They want to fly.

They want us to put them to work. I'm like, “I might have something for you to do in the office.” They’re like, “That’s not what I was asking.” I was like, “Sorry.”

It gives them a reason to fly. A lot of them say they get bored going up for lunch or flying in circles. This pairs their passion with somebody who needs to get somewhere for treatments.

That's so heartwarming. I kept saying, “Thank you. Sorry.” Mark and Greg were our pilots. I felt like they were our guardian angels walking us. Mark was on the small plane going to Boston. The whole time, I'm still like, “I can't believe this is happening for free. What is happening?” He walked us from the plane into the lift or the car that you guys had us take. I'm like, “He's like our dad putting us in the car.”

He is the best. I don’t know if David told you but afterward, he sent a picture of you guys in the plane and said, “If they need to fly again, please let me know and I'll do it.”

That's lovely. We feel the same about Mark and Greg. It's great.

We've flown in Greg's plane to Boston before, too.

The King Air? Didn't you feel the same?

It was nice.

Maddy was knitting a blanket in the back.

I was. I can't even deny that.

Is there one final thought you would want to leave our audience with?

I thought about this. Cancer wants you to be miserable and make your life difficult. That's all that cancer wants to do. It's wild to me that there's a flip side of cancer and what I call the grace of cancer. You are walking testaments to that. It's also showing us how amazing the world can be and how wonderful people can be. You guys are living proof that there's so much goodness and much more out there than sad, scary cancer. We thought we were like on a vacation or a date and being treated like royalty. We appreciate that so much. It's very important to see that there is such grace in cancer. Thank you for showing us that. The other thing is also to check your colon. I can't say that enough. Check your colon, especially if you're over 45.

 

TTAFE - DFY 25 | Colon Cancer

 

You are the best, Christie. Thank you so much for all that you've been spreading about us and the work that you're helping us do. We can't do it without you.

Thank you. I told you when we landed that if you guys ever have a job opportunity, I want to work for you.

Thank you.

What you guys are doing is so important. Thank you for doing it every day.

We love it. Thank you.

I hope to see you and Russ Ford soon.

That's right.

He's my neighbor.

Jess even said, “Do you need a ride down to Wings Field?” I grew up there. Let me tell you. When I was little, my mom used to pack a picnic. She used to take my brother and me. We'd go on a picnic, go to Wings Field, and watch the planes land.

People still do that.

Do they do that?

Full circle.

This whole thing worked out great.

Not that it's as fun but Fox Chase is down the street from my house so we can go there, too. We have friends everywhere.

I hope to be able to have the opportunity to fly with you again in the future. Dana-Farber agreed with everything that Fox Chase was doing. I said, “Can I come here for treatment?” She said, “You can but you shouldn't.” They want me to check in once a year if nothing else happens between then. Hopefully, I get to fly with you soon if you'll have us.

You know where to find us. Anytime, we are happy to take you.

Our teenage daughters are super jealous so I might have to take one of them next time.

That's fine. We'll let them come.

Thanks, Christie. We'll talk to you soon.

Thanks for the T-shirts and pictures. Give David a big hug, too. Thank you.

We will. Bye.

 

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Consider sponsoring episodes! For more information, please contact Jess at jessames@angelflighteast.org.

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