Crisis, Compassion, and Strength
by Cheri Cimmarrusti, Associate Executive Director
It is difficult to describe the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis on mission operations at Angel Flight West. In my 22+ years working with this organization, this time period has been the most difficult. Looking back, our team, our passengers and our pilots have dealt with other disasters, but none like this one. Certainly 9/11 brought us to a grinding halt, but very quickly allowed our pilots to assist by flying blood missions from the very first day. Once the skies were opened up again, we were flying passengers who were once again getting the medical treatment they so needed. Katina brought us some disaster missions, but it didn’t interfere with our regular day-to-day missions. We also flew some support for the mudslides in Southern California a few years ago, but once again, our regular missions stayed on schedule. Throughout all of those, we were able to remain in the office. This crisis has impacted every inch of AFW. However, we are tough, we are resilient, and we will muscle through this to continue making an impact wherever we can.
The Mission Operations Team is a tight-knit group who are normally seated in the “bull-pen,” able to bounce ideas off each other and communicate easily throughout the day. After the first few cancellations that started to trickle in, I remember thinking, “Oh! This is going to be serious.” Of course even then, I didn’t have a sense of the magnitude and depth of this crisis. Passengers were cancelling important appointments their providers did not deem essential. For our team, this felt personal as we knew how much this would impact the health of those we deal with each day: for example, the child whose mother was told that they would need to postpone their appointment since he wasn’t terminally ill; or the multiple surgeries that have been rescheduled; and those who fear their chemotherapy protocols won’t be accessible any longer. For us, each mission is a face and a story. Each passenger is part of our daily lives and we are invested in each step of their journey.
Soon missions were down to those with the most critical need; those who felt the need to go to their treatment outweighed the risk of exposure. Our entire team was, and is constantly re-evaluating what our process should be. Some pilots still want to fly passengers; others opt to offer to fly blood or supplies only. Our team completely respects those decisions and tries to bring in more supply missions. As you probably know by now, our Board made the decision to temporarily suspend volunteer flown passenger flights until further notice. In Colorado, a relationship with the Colorado Hospital Association has resulted in multiple flights to fly PPE and other medical supplies from Denver to the rural hospital facilities who so desperately need these items. One pilot even flew a ventilator to Rangely, CO should the need arise because they did not have one that would work properly.
We will be administering a program with Alaska Airlines to fly medical personnel who want to work in areas that have high demand for more healthcare workers. Our Outreach Team is working hard to find other opportunities for flying supplies to remote areas. We are working for missions down the line when we hope to have our pilots back in the air.