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Catching Up: Pilots for Patients

Philip Thomas, Blue Cross Foundation, Louisiana, 2009 Angel Award

As part of our 25th Anniversary celebration, we’re catching up with past grantees, Angel Award honorees and other partners to learn about their growth and impact on the health and lives of Louisianians. If you’re an Angel honoree or grantee, let us hear from you! We want to tell your story too.

Philip Thomas, Blue Cross Foundation, Louisiana, 2009 Angel Award
Philip Thomas of Pilots for Patients, 2009 Angel Award Honoree

 

In 2008, The Times-Picayune published a story on a scrappy new group called Pilots for Patients. The paper interviewed Larry Lehmann, a New Orleans attorney, and his client, Philip Thomas of Monroe, about their work for Louisiana’s patients.

The “Angel Flight” model connected (and still connects) licensed pilots who own small aircraft – many recreational hobbyists – with patients in need of no-cost travel for out-of-town treatment.

Some patients need urgent transportation for surgery, such as organ transplants when, suddenly, a needed donor organ is available. Others are enduring a chronic disease such as cancer and are receiving treatment far away from home.

Lehmann and Thomas – both pilots – had parted ways with a national organization to focus exclusively on Louisiana patients. The two explained why focusing on home was so important to them:

“A lot of times people can’t get the care they need in the city that they live in,” Lehmann said.

He and Philip Thomas, a client and friend who lives in Monroe, were active in Angel Flight, a nationwide volunteer pilots’ organization. But it seemed to them that the national group was not giving Louisianians sufficient attention, so they started their own organization.

“Louisiana being second from the bottom for healthcare, we felt that there was a need to help people…”

[…]

“(Patients) say, ‘Well, what’s the catch?’” Thomas said. “I’ll say, ‘There is no catch.’ They say, ‘How many times can I do this?’ ‘As many times as you need to.’”

At the time the article was published, Pilots for Patients had flown 120 missions with 5 volunteer pilots. A year later, when the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana recognized Philip Thomas with The Angel Award® for his work flying children in need of care, the crew had flown 300 missions.

“That was a big moment for us,” says Thomas. “The Angel Award was a real moment of momentum for us. It brought us a lot of attention to our cause and helped us push towards where we are now.”

Today, Pilots for Patients has 120 pilots who have volunteered to fly over 3,000 missions. The 3,000th mission was flown by Florence Bethard of Coushatta. In its newsletter, Pilots for Patients publishes its Top 10 pilots for the year. Thomas, still a volunteer and a tireless advocate for the work of his fellow pilots, is on that list. He’s proud of the organization’s accomplishments – but is quick to point out that recognition isn’t the point.

“We’ve flown the equivalent of 57 times around the equator. Our [pilots] have given almost $3 million in in-kind services. We challenge each other for friendly motivation, but honestly this is a ministry focused on people. It’s an incredible gift to us to have the opportunity to serve people in need and connect them with care, to keep them going.”

In 2015, the Foundation awarded Pilots for Patients an Angels of Change grant in recognition of its continued excellence. The organization used the grant fund to successfully recruit more pilots and even further accelerate Pilots of Patients’ growth.

Of its total missions flown, Pilots for Patients has flown nearly 300 children for diagnoses, treatment or surgery. The organization is actively partnering with children’s hospitals to increase that number. With the organization’s pilot retention rate, Thomas isn’t worried about the demand.

“I think what keeps the pilots coming back is that sense of relief you create for patients or parents. That they can focus on treatment and getting better, to sit back and let us take care of getting them there – I think that is huge for people.”

 

Philip Thomas is just one of more than 170 individuals who have been recognized with the Angel Award over the last 20 years. The Angel Award, one of the signature programs of the Blue Cross Foundation, recognizes everyday people doing extraordinary good for Louisiana’s children.’

To learn more about Pilots for Patients, visit their website at www.pilotsforpatients.org

To learn more about the Blue Cross Foundation, the Angel Award and how to nominate an outstanding individual, visit www.BCBSLAFoundation.org

 

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