‘Hope’ flies through the skies

Last year, Hope Air arranged for more than 6,091 flights for people who needed to access specialized medical care not available locally

Vernon resident Leila Ward appreciates the service provided by Hope Air when she needs to get to Vancouver for medical  treatment.

Vernon resident Leila Ward appreciates the service provided by Hope Air when she needs to get to Vancouver for medical treatment.

Hope Air is Canada’s only nation-wide charity providing free flights to people who cannot afford the cost of an airline ticket to get to specialized medical treatment outside their home communities. Since 1986, Hope Air has arranged flights for people of all ages from across Canada, using national and regional airlines and private planes.

Leila Ward of Vernon has been a Hope Air client since last summer and she is certain that the service has saved her life by allowing her to go to Vancouver for medical treatment she cannot get closer to home.

“There is so much compassionate work in Hope Air. I heard about it from someone at the pool and wondered if I qualified. By a miracle, I did,” she said.

Ward, an artist, photographer, activist and retired teacher, goes to Vancouver for treatment for spasmodic dysphonia, a rare condition that affects the vocal chords so that they tighten and she can’t breathe. The condition is triggered by some foods, or sometimes by saliva. The treatment is to have a muscle paralyzed by medical Botox  every three months.

Ward is also waiting for a hip replacement after two accidents and dealing with that pain which makes driving long distance difficult. Before she was able to have the Hope Air flights, she was spending more than $3,000 a year on air fare. She still has to pay for accommodations and the Botox, which is considered cosmetic and not a medically necessary treatment.

She recalls her first Hope Air flight clearly.

“We were supposed to leave at 8:30 a.m. The pilot, Braden Messenger, came from Kelowna. When he did the safety check, he found that one of the wheels had a leak. He called an aircraft mechanic from Salmon Arm who came to look at it and drove to Kelowna to get a part and came back and fixed it and then we were able to leave,” said Ward. “That’s the kind of people who are at Hope Air. How lovely is that? I was too excited to be nervous. It was a wonderful experience.”

When she went to Vancouver in February, the weather was too bad to take off and she was booked on a commercial flight to get home.

“That Hope Air should do this for people absolutely amazes me. The mercy of it. I don’t know what I would do without it because I couldn’t get to the treatments. Being able to get to Vancouver for the treatments is crucial to me to keep breathing. I know there are other people in the area who also use the service to get the treatment they need. I don’t know where I would be without it. I spread the word every chance I get,” said Ward.

Almost half of all Hope Air flights are for children. About 30 per cent of Hope Air clients would cancel or postpone important medical care if they could not get a flight from Hope Air. Others have to make long, uncomfortable trips by car or bus to get appointments. Hope Air provided more than 6,000 flights in 2012.

Hope Air is supported by donations from foundations and corporations, as well as from individual donors. Flights are on commercial scheduled flights or on private planes with pilots who volunteer their time and their own planes.

Messenger, of Kelowna, received the Distinguished Volunteer Pilot Spirit of Hope Award in 2012 in recognition of his valuable service in the air — 25 missions since 2007 — and on the ground at speaking engagements and fundraising events.

“When Hope Air approached me, I thought it was pretty amazing and I wanted to get involved,” said Messenger, who has a commercial pilot’s licence and works in computer technology as program director at Accelerate Okanagan. He flies his own six-seat Beech Bonanza for Hope Air.

“About 60 per cent of our clients are 15 and under and going for follow-up treatments. It would be difficult and expensive for them if they didn’t get the help. They find the flight in a small plane exciting and it gives them something else to think and talk about. Clients of all ages tell us they like the flights and that they are so appreciative of this service that is there for them,” he said.

“What we want to get across is that the service is there and Canadians are benefitting from it. All the pilots involved want to do the same thing — help make people’s lives better by having the flights there for them when they need it.”

Eligibility is based on financial need for people with a confirmed, approved medical appointment and a doctor’s confirmation that the patient is medically fit to fly. For more information, to request a flight or to refer someone for a flight, complete a Flight Request form at www.hopeair.ca or call 1-877-346-4673 (HOPE).

To help with the increasing demand for its service, Hope Air has partnered with Overwaitea Food Group and participating stores in B.C. Customers can donate their More Rewards points to Hope Air every time they shop.

Whenever you accumulate 1,000 points or more on your More Rewards card, you can donate them at the check out. Each 1,000 points represents $1, which the company will match and donate to Hope Air Mission. Just tell the cashier that you want your points to go to Hope Air.

In the Okanagan, participating stores include Cooper’s Foods in Winfield, Rutland and Glenmore; Save-on-Foods in Kelowna and Westbank, and Urban Fare in Kelowna.

Hope Air hopes to raise $10,000 by the end of the year, which will provide 40 extra flights to people in need.