By Timothy Gillis
When Dr. Jeremy Morton retired from active surgery fifteen years ago, he was looking for a way to combine his background in the medical field with his love for flying. The Portland surgeon had flown air ambulances during the Vietnam War, and later started a heart surgery clinic in Presque Isle, so he’d already set a pretty high standard of expectation for himself.
“I heard about Air Lifeline, did some flights with them for a couple of years,” he said. “Angel Flight took over and, it all became one organization.”
Morton, who has lived in Portland since 1971, got his training in Houston and was a surgeon in Vietnam. He has made around 120 flights for the company, which connects patients in need with pilots willing to donate their time and fuel for free.
Morton flies a Cessna 182, and says there’s a big need for people coming down from Aroostock county to go to Boston, while a few go to New York.
“That represents the greatest need,” he said. “Generally the people are of limited means, and it’s an enormous distance to travel. The majority are people with cancer or kids with orthopedic problems. They need to go on a regular basis. A lot of patients, for example, go to Dana Farber for chemo, and have to go a couple times a week. People are ambulatory, but not always feeling well.”
A trip from the County to Boston could take more than seven hours each way, and the burden on the patients is not only a financial one.
“It’s a pretty onerous chore for them to make several trips like that,” said Morton, who alters his cockpit demeanor based on each patient. “Some are very chatty; some don’t say much. Some want to talk about their medical problems; some don’t. I don’t identify myself as a physician unless they ask.”
Morton, who got his pilot’s license in 1978, said he had done a fair amount of medical flying in the past, but he’s not now flying now as a doctor.
“I ran a clinic in Presque Isle and Bangor before Bangor started a heart surgery program, so I would fly up to the clinics in the morning,” he said. “Especially in Presque Isle, it’s hard for patients I saw in Portland to come back after their surgery.”
Over the years, Morton has seen all kinds of patients. “I had some little kids that were going to the Shriners’ Hospital,” he said. “I had a fellow one time that I flew out of Boston and after a while his wife asked what I did. I told her ‘surgery.’ Her husband piped up from out back and said ‘what’d you say your name was?'” Apparently, Morton had operated on him eighteen years earlier.
“We had some flight trouble, bad weather,” Morton recalls. “He said, ‘I hope this is another one of your successful operations.'”
The chance to donate the time it takes for these flights, as well as the fuel and wear-and-tear costs on his plane, is worth every minute.
“It’s very rewarding. It’s a skill I have that I can put to use, and the opportunity to do that’s very gratifying,” said Morton, who is a consultant at the Maine Medical Center and is on the hospital’s institutional review board.
Morton was quick to share the credit, however, and he thinks that, far too often, the press reports only on the pilot angle.
“We get a lot of cooperation from a lot of people, including the folks at Logan. We have a special arrangement for Angel Flights. They let us land there for nothing,” he said. “We already have enough costs to concern us with (e.g. fuel) so Logan is very supportive.” Other companies help out. Phillips 66 gives them a dollar off per gallon of fuel. Morton uses 15 gallons an hour, and about 75 gallons for a typical trip from Presque Isle to Boston. He credits such companies as these for making his volunteerism more affordable. “They have a sense of wanting to support the program,” he said. “I’m a little surprised other companies haven’t followed suit.”
Keith D’Entremont, head of corporate development and community outreach at Angel Flight Northeast, has been with them for three years. His father, Roger D’Entremont, a retired TWA captain, does all the pilot approval for the company, which was started by Larry Camerlin in 1996. Roger has been around for all of those 16 years, first as a pilot, and now in charge of orientation, making sure pilots have met certain minimums, (hours of flight time) to make sure patients are safe.
They have more than 60,000 flights in their history, to 189 different health care facilities in 33 states, roughly ten million miles of transportation. They also have a virtually spotless record for safety. One flight did go down. The pilot and two passengers died in 2008, crashing in Easton, Massachusetts, on a flight from New York. “Since that crash, we’ve increased our qualifications,” Keith said. “Aviation, by its nature, is a risky business.” He’s flown, but not for Angel Flight, saying he’s not near the hours required, 500 or more depending on the type of license.
In the Maine area last year, Angel Flight provided almost 1,600 flights. “In total, we provide an average of 95 flights a week,” Keith said. “So we ‘re pretty busy.”
Pilots provide time, fuel, and the aircraft. Angel Flight NE acts as go-between for patients and their social workers and pilots who will fly them.
“They’ll call us with a need, we see how we can help,” Keith said. “We do our best not to turn down anybody.”
Coleen DiCesare, who was diagnosed with leukemia in August of last year, is one of those thousands of people assisted by Angel Flight NE and Dr. Morton on two occasions. She lives in Holden, Maine, near Brewer.
“In the beginning, after I was able to come home from Boston for a month, I was able to fly to Boston once a week for an appointment,” said DiCesare, who still travels to the Hub once a month. She said that, in addition to Dr. morton, she has met a lot of different pilots, and they have “all been absolutely wonderful. I had one bumpy flight, just one of those things that happens sometimes.” DiCesare, who recently turned 65, had never flown in her life until she flew with Angel Flight. Desire the novelty and the foreign feel of being airborne, she raves about her transportation.
“Oh my goodness, I try to call them two weeks before my flight,” she said.
“‘Earth Angels'” on the ground pick me up in a car, take me to airport. It has been a tremendous blessing to me and my family because there were times in the winter when I couldn’t always fly. We had to drive down. It’s a lot of money and a long ways. But for the last three or four months, I’ve only flown on Angel Flight. Without them financially, I don’t know what I would have done. It would have been a tremendous burden.