Flying for Wings of Mercy

It is hard to describe the unique role that a Wings of Mercy pilot plays.  At the most basic level, we are cab drivers, there because a vehicle is needed and somebody has to drive it.  But somewhere between hello and goodbye things change.

We, the pilots, have an advantage in our relationship with the patients we transport.  We know something of the suffering and danger that our passengers are experiencing – know that every smile on their face, every cheerful word is an act of bravery, a picture of courage.  As pilots, our immediate questions are about this flight; how much fuel and how much weather.  Their questions are more profound; “Will we be able to afford treatment?”, “Will my child survive?”  They rise from unfathomable depths to meet us at the surface.  Or, perhaps, they condescend.

I remember one young man, his body by then reduced to a rickety skeleton by the cancer that had nearly consumed him.  I was with him for but a few hours on a single day, and yet I was present at two major events in his life.  In the morning, I stood awkwardly aside as he said goodbye to friends and family in Michigan where he had spent his adult life.  In the afternoon, I stood aside again, an awkward witness as his parents took him gently from the airplane and helped him into an old pickup truck.  The reunion, they all knew, was to be brief.  He had come home to die.  If he spoke a word to me, I do not remember it, but I will always remember the steady gaze from his exhausted face, the kindly nod to say “Thanks.  I’m ok.”

Does God waste pain?  Is our suffering ever for nothing?  Is crisis a private thing – a virus to be hidden and quarantined?  As I have watched the patients and families served by Wings of Mercy I have seen something very different, that families and friends can bear a little of the burden, can help to answer a question deeper than “How will we get to the hospital?”, even deeper than “What will this disease do to me?”.

I am just a cabbie but I carry in my heart and in my flying a little of God’s love for these brave people.  Thanks to Peter VandenBosch, I can be a part of the answer to their deeper question: “Is there a love and purpose for my life that transcends even this illness?”  It is to answer this question that Wings of Mercy exists; to share another’s burdens, sometimes to weep with those who weep, always to say with our service that God is here, that his love and mercy reach into every dark corner of this hard world.

Peter VandenBosch

It started in a boat, like the old story about Jesus’ disciples, but this is a much nicer boat.  It is owned by a successful man, retired to Florida, enjoying the natural reward for years of hard work.  He is bobbing gently in the Gulf of Mexico on his beautiful boat, surrounded by fishing buddies, casting into the future for which he has so long prepared.  There is a tug on his line and he sets the hook, and what he begins to reel in will change his life…

Peter VandenBosch – the man in the boat – is a practical man who over 35 years built his broadcasting network on a foundation of clear thinking, honesty, and hard work, traits he learned well growing up during the Depression on a Minnesota farm, eleventh of twelve children.  But he is a dreamer, too, and one dream took root when, at twelve years old, a Ford Tri-Motor roared over the farm.  “I’ll be there someday”, he told his sister.  And, years later when he left the farm, he did make his way into the cockpit, first as a pilot and radio operator in WWII and later as owner of his own business aircraft.

But all that is past now.  He is on the boat, enjoying his retirement dream, blissfully unaware that he is about to be unretired.  As he reels in his line, someone nearby says to him “Peter, there is more to life than this.”  Startled, he looks quickly toward his friends and sees that no one has spoken.  No one, and yet he heard the words plainly, can still hear them echo in his mind.

When he returns home that afternoon he tells his wife, Joan, about the voice.  Her response is also startling:  “Peter, this is serious.  We’ve got to sell out and go home.”  Over the next few months, they do just that and are soon reestablished in Holland, Michigan.  He tells no one about the voice and continues to pray and puzzle over its meaning.  It isn’t long before an old friend calls to suggest that Peter use his airplane to help poor people who need transportation to special hospitals.  He tells Joan who says, “There’s your call.”

On his first trip, Peter took a brother and sister – both fighting cancer and aging disease – from Holland to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.  Other flights followed, some more dramatic than others.  Just before Thanksgiving, he receives a heart-breaking call; a 5-year-old girl is desperately ill and needs transportation to the Mayo Clinic immediately.  Peter quickly plans the flight and hurries to meet the family at the airport, speaks briefly with weeping grandparents who do not expect to see the child alive again.  He makes little Meagan and her parents as comfortable as he can and guides his twin-engine aircraft over the familiar track across Lake Michigan, Wisconsin, the Mississippi and into Minnesota.

When they are almost to Rochester, the father suddenly rushes to the cabin – his daughter is failing.  Peter communicates the emergency to air traffic controllers who immediately clear him to land.  As he descends, the control tower tells him to shut down his airplane on the runway; an ambulance will drive across the field to take the girl.  By the time Peter has the family’s bags out of the airplane, Meagan is already on life-support, and the ambulance is ready to sprint to the hospital.  Peter fuels up and heads home with a heavy heart.  He has done what he could.

As time passed, more pilots joined Peter’s new organization.  As word of their effectiveness spread, separate branches were created in Flint and St. Cloud. Since Peter’s first flights in 1991, Wings of Mercy pilots have flown more than 4,000 patients for crucial care, each with their own story.  At “Care Affairs”, a series of fund- and friend-raising events sponsored by Wings of Mercy at local airports, Peter and his team often get a chance to meet patients and hear the rest of their stories, so it was not out of the ordinary when two women walked up to Peter to say “thank you”.  He could not remember them but when the younger woman took him in her arms she began to weep and said “My name is Meagan.  When I was a little girl you saved my life.”

In 2005 the National Aeronautics Association awarded Peter VandenBosch its highest award for public service.  More important, Wings of Mercy continues to provide crucial support to poor families in medical crisis.

Curiously, the ministry began on a boat, in the heart of a man who thought his work was done.  But, like the old story of Jesus’ disciples, when you go fishing with God it is sometimes hard to say who is reeling in whom.

Back to Mayo

Bill hoists himself into the airplane with his one good arm.  The other, if he has another (it did not seem right to ask) is tucked inside his jacket.  The sleeve hangs empty.  You can tell that he has long been a strong man, that he is more surprised than deflated by this weakness.  He does not know how to be ill.

Kathy reminds me of a kindly British mum, with her prim face and little hat.  We were told that her body harbors a rare form of cancer, a stow-away that sneaked on board and produced a brood of tumors that now grow throughout her body.  The storm within does not disturb the calm surface of her regal face or strain her quiet voice.  Somehow, she radiates only gentleness.

Bill and Kathy had not met before this morning, but both have appointments at the Mayo Clinic.  Kam and I made the short hop from Grand Rapids to meet them here and now we are off together in the Bonanza to Minnesota.

After the busy few minutes in which we establish the airplane on its course around Chicago, I hear Bill’s voice on the intercom.  He is telling a story about making this trip by train; about day-long delays spent pacing around the terminal and being jolted crazily as the train lurched around curves.  His voice is cheerful; he is telling this as a joke on himself and occasionally chides me when the bumping of the airplane reminds him of a rough stretch of track.  This is funny, I suppose, but we both know that he has a hole somewhere in his spinal cord, that it is dangerous for him to be bounced around.

Kathy sits behind the cockpit, facing aft.  I cannot see her face but occasionally hear her voice.  She, too, has made the long sojourn in railway cars and automobiles.  I recoil from the thought of it; she seems so frail.  You get the feeling that, just below the surface, she is wrestling an exhausting battle with pain.  So far, this morning at least and seen from a distance, her gentleness prevails.

Well, we can help some, Kam and I who fly, and Jonathan who donated the use of his airplane.  (And, of course, Sharon and Grace who arranged the trip, and Terry and Dan and Peter, and the hundreds of others who keep this ministry going.)    The flight will take less than three hours and, Bill’s jokes aside, will deliver them to their doctors not much the worse for wear.

When we arrive in Rochester, Bill and Kathy deplane.  She, graceful and cautious.  He, a bit awkward and off-balance but, capable with his one good arm, ejects himself manfully and unassisted.  They are both effusive in their gratitude and praise of the flight.  They collect themselves in the terminal, are soon bundled into a cab, and roar off toward the hospital.

In that quiet moment as our patients drive away, in the tug of the strange vacuum that always forms as people you have come to care about pass out of your sight, I search for the right emotion.  Yes, we helped some.  We fixed nothing, but we lightened their load a bit, perhaps reminded them that they are precious, that the battle they fight is worth fighting.

But love is losing, is it not?  The love expressed by family, by friends, by Wings of Mercy does not chase the evil from their bodies.  While the speed of our airplanes has, on occasion, saved a life, more often our service is woven into a tapestry that includes threads of both comfort and tragedy.  We do not so often airlift our friends out of the valley of the shadow of death as travel with them a short way through it.

Many of the wounds we see are too deep for medicine, let alone airplanes.  This discourages me until I remember our calling.  We fly not so much to rescue as to remind (and be reminded) that God himself was once “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering”.  On that day, some two thousand years ago, when the sky turned black and the earth shuddered at the touch of the dying King’s blood, he “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows”.   We follow his lead and, if there be any hope for us or for our patients, it will be by his wounds that we are healed.

Surely he took up our pain
   and bore our suffering,
 
yet we considered him punished by God,
   stricken by him, and afflicted.
 
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
 
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
   and by his wounds, we are healed.

Isaiah 53: 4-5

Reunion

We met Derek and Maria in Kalamazoo.  Derek has cancer or, it seemed to me, cancer has Derek.

He is thin.  No, less than thin.  On the outside, he is a stick man.  A rickety tree, its branches barren.   A man trapped inside a building that is leaning, wavering, soon to fall.

His wife is there, and three children who do not understand why their father is slowly disappearing before their eyes.

We are going to Texas where Derek’s family is waiting for this last homecoming. Even in Mike’s powerful airplane, it is to be a long flight.
I look back every few minutes to see how they are doing. I soon learn that there is strength in Derek that cancer cannot reach. He often meets my eye across the noisy cabin and nods.  I’m ok.  He does not look for sympathy, offers no complaint.  After a while, he is able to sleep.

We slowly trace a line across Illinois and into Missouri. Our course is against the wind and we stop for fuel.   A few minutes later we are back in the airplane, riding out a slow, jangling climb through a thin layer of clouds to smoother air, and two hours later, down again for more fuel in Texarkana.

Derek’s wife sits one row forward, facing him, her back to me. She lies down across the seats but I cannot tell if she sleeps.  Derek shifts, sometimes closes his eyes.  When he notices me watching he meets my eye, nods, asks for nothing.

Finally, we bump our way down through somber layers of overcast and land at San Antonio.   It is closing time but the control tower at Stinson kindly passed news of our approach and the FBO operator is waiting for us and has guided Derek’s waiting family to the building by the time we taxi up.

A man who must be Derek’s father comes up to the airplane as soon as we shut down. His eyes are wide.  He is looking for his son.  He reminds me of a tree that has withstood many storms.   Not a willow.  An oak, broad and strong.

Before we can clear away our maps and struggle out of the cockpit, Derek’s wife has opened the passenger door which, as it happens, blocks the walkway down the wing, and we are stuck, no longer in charge, awkward bystanders to this wonderful and terrible reunion.

We wait quietly for a couple of minutes, but Derek is too weak to get out of his seat.   I ask his wife to close the door so Mike and I can get out of the airplane.  Derek’s father is there as we step down, shaking our hands and thanking us, friendly and worried and kind and, above all, anxious to get his son out of the airplane, to get him home.

We help Derek turn in his seat and ease him to the step and then to the ground.  Carefully, tentatively, he stands on his own, and we edge away. Derek’s father takes his frail son in his arms, holds him tenderly as if he might break. Holds him for a long time as if he could, by his love, pass his own strength into him.

The tears run down his sturdy, weathered face.  What good is strength you cannot use to protect those you love?  Another storm.

There is not much more to tell.  We were thanked and hugged, we waved as they piled into a truck and drove away.   And, yes, I told Derek that I would pray for him.  And I do.

Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you” and I believe it.  I saw that kind of love in Derek’s father, who would, I think, have given every fiber of his powerful frame to build a safe place for his child.
“I will come back again and will take you to be with me”, He said, and that is my great hope because every life is short.  Our souls, too, live in a frail frame and our days here, whether they will be many or few, are slipping quickly away.

And this is what Wings of Mercy has to say to the world.  Airplanes cannot give life any more than hospitals can give life. But we can point to Jesus, who does give life, and use what few powers we have to bless those he loves.

Sabrina

It is a family photo, much like any other.  Sabrina, a cute six-year-old, looks back from the center of the image, held securely in the arms of her smiling parents.  Big brother, standing slightly aloof, wears a serious expression befitting the dignity of late adolescence.  The brilliant afternoon sun gleams in their hair and divides the scene into sparkling highlight and dark shadow.
It is a typical family photo, except the family is standing in front of an airplane, preparing for a long ride home.  The smiles, on second glance, appear a bit worn.  And Sabrina is curiously limp; her arm hangs straight down and her father’s hand cradles her chin, his fingers gently directing her face toward the camera.  It is not that she will not look there, but that she cannot.
Sabrina is losing control.  It began three years ago with a steadily increasing clumsiness.  Three-year-olds are not noted for grace, so it was easy to hope that this would pass in time.  A year later, she began to stutter.  Not long after, her arms began to move in strange, repetitive patterns and Sabrina could not make them stop.  There were many doctor visits but no solution and, over the next few months, Sabrina gradually lost the ability to walk and, now, the ability to talk.
The answer came about four weeks ago; Sabrina has Tay Sachs, a rare disease that slowly and relentlessly disables the nervous system, isolating body from soul.  Sabrina is alert and passionate, but her body is a car without a steering wheel; it goes where it will and she is along for the ride.
This week, the family has been at a research hospital in Minneapolis conferring with doctors who study the disease.  They offer little hope; current treatments are painful and ineffective.  Dan and Ensenia decide to spare Sabrina that trauma; to surround her with love, to do for her what she can no longer do for herself, to pray that her little body is not coasting to a stop.
We load up and depart the small airport at St. Paul, swaying in our seats on this warm and gusty afternoon.  When we have settled into a climb over southern Minnesota I ask Dan a few questions.  As he answers, I unwrap the chocolate bar I had just secured from the FBO’s vending machine.  It has been a busy day and, nutritious or not, it looks good.  I break off a piece and offer the rest to Dan.  He declines, telling me that he loves sweets but does not eat them anymore.  When Sabrina became ill he vowed to abstain until she got better.  He does not say this for effect, does not say it to reduce my enjoyment, but the candy bar goes back into the wrapper.  I savor, quietly, the bite I had already taken, savor the knowledge that my three beautiful daughters are well, settle into the awareness that Dan gracefully shoulders a load of loss and worry and sorrow that might crush me.
I remember the moment of looking for them as I walked into the FBO.  They were not hard to spot; it was a small lobby with but one family inside.  A tired family far from home and far from well, but Ensenia’s smile turned on like a beacon turns on, registering recognition and filling the room with its light.  There is much darkness pressing in around this family, but there seems to be something stronger pressing out, a light that overwhelms the darkness.
As we drone along, I look back occasionally.  Ensenia holds Sabrina close, nestled as any young child would into her mother’s lap, and smiles to indicate that they are ok.  In the back, young Adam reads.  He wants to be a physician, Dan says.  Even now, Adam plays an active role in Sabrina’s care and in consultations with the doctors.  He reads their reports and understands much of their discussions and helps Mom and Dad process their recommendations.
I am struck by the irony here: the disease attacks Sabrina’s connection to the world around her, but inadvertently strengthens it.  This family is not just managing the disability of one member; it is reconfiguring itself to remain complete.  Sabrina cannot protect herself, so Dan works and prioritizes and sacrifices to somehow provide the shelter she needs.  Sabrina cannot understand her illness, so Adam lays aside some of his youth and applies his strong young mind to learn how medicine can help.  Sabrina cannot care for her own body, but Ensenia can see in her eyes and hear in her voice enough to understand and meet the need.  Disease has silenced Sabrina’s speech and has stilled her hands and her feet, and so her family has become her voice and hands and feet.  The attack tries to make Sabrina a prisoner, but her family’s love makes her a queen.  What disease has stolen, love has replaced. 
True, to replace is not the same as to restore, and help is provided at great expense.  Sabrina remains disabled and, often, frustrated.  Dan, Ensenia and Adam are not free to do what they might otherwise have done, unencumbered with Sabrina’s care.  But I don’t think they see it in those terms.  Dan speaks of God’s plan for them, even now, as if love’s counter-attack can succeed, as if Sabrina’s story is not, in the final telling, a tragedy after all.  As if, in their serving and sacrifice, the members of Sabrina’s family are not diminished, but rather clarified and made complete and Sabrina, though separated from her own body, is set free from our common fear of being left alone. 
Sabrina’s life is sharply divided between the dark shadow of her terrible disease and the brightness of her family’s love and faith.  She cannot tell me how she feels, but I look back to see her nestled in her mothers’ arms, at peace.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
John 1:5