Calli Kalman spent years of her childhood traveling with her family to hospitals across the country, searching for a way to stop a rare cancer growing in her.
First, there was Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, where she underwent operations, chemotherapy and radiation. Then Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where she received an innovative, less-toxic treatment. And then Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, for more treatments to keep the cancer at bay.
The trips were financially draining, said Calli’s father, Frank Kalman.
He relied on Angel Airlines for Life, a charity that uses donated frequent-flier miles and cash grants from commercial airlines to transport patients to treatment facilities.
“They’re the ones that have allowed us to go see the doctors that saved her life,” Frank Kalman said.
Until 2009, Angel Airlines for Life operated under the umbrella organization Mercy Medical Airlift, which manages programs to help patients travel within specific regions and through a variety of modes of transportation, such as buses or private planes.
In 2009, Angel Airlines for Life opened a chapter in all states except Alaska, said Joanie Corkrum, director of administrative services at the Virginia Beach, Va.-based Mercy Medical Airlift. This year, all of the group’s regional chapters joined the Combined Federal Campaign, she said.
Angel Airlines for Life chapters offer commercial flights nationwide, officials said.
Travel is a significant cost for many people, especially those who have rare diseases that require special treatments offered at only a few hospitals, said Ed Boyer, president of Mercy Medical Airlift.
“The trouble is, even if you have medical insurance to pay for the care, it will rarely pay for the travel to get to the care,” he said.
Angel Airlines for Life paid for 9,748 flights last year, which would have cost patients $2.9 million, officials said. As of Sept. 30, the charity paid for 7,883 flights for roughly the same cost.
Calli Kalman, 23, graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo this year and married this summer. And her father started Kids’ Cancer Research Foundation, to provide financial support for research and clinical trials to find a cure for neuroblastoma.
Those accomplishments were realized because the family had access to top doctors and researchers, Frank Kalman said. He said he has met dozens of families through his foundation who have received the wrong treatments because they were unable to get access to the right care.
“There are only a handful of places that know how to deal with pediatric cancer, and it’s so critical that your kid gets to the right one,” he said.
Angel Airlines for Life has turned to CFC as it struggles to keep the program running, Boyer said. One of the biggest hits came when United Airlines, which usually runs a promotion to solicit frequent-flier miles from travelers at the end of the year, got sidetracked with its merger with Continental Airlines last year, he said.
“Because of that, we have basically all but run out of help through United for the rest of the year,” he said. “We depend on airlines and different mechanisms for the ticket resources, and we can’t control that.”
The charity helped about 300 fewer patients this month, a trend that will likely continue the rest of the year, Boyer said.
Involvement with the CFC is expected to help, but it is a tough financial time for everyone, Corkrum said.
“You can always hope,” she said, “but in this economy, it’s really hard to judge.”