BAR HARBOR, Maine — When Evin Carson learned she needed a mastectomy, she knew right away she wanted to have it done in Boston, where her family had lived for many years. But, in addition to coping with her breast cancer and a harrowing regimen of surgeries, blood tests, chemotherapy and other treatments, the 43-year-old single mother faced some other serious challenges.
“I have car issues,” she said. “I have money issues. And I have two small children, so I have time issues.” If Carson wanted the care of a Boston surgeon, it seemed she would need some serious logistical help.
She found it.
Two Sundays ago, Jim Platz of Auburn, a volunteer pilot with Patient AirLift Services, or PALS, landed his Cessna eight-seater at the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport. Carson climbed aboard, bringing a close friend along for moral support. An hour later, they touched down at Logan Airport in Boston, and the next morning, Carson reported to Massachusetts General Hospital for her surgery.
Last Thursday, Platz picked the two women up at Logan and brought them home again to Maine.
Total cost of the air transportation: Zero. Zilch. Nada. And when Carson goes back to Boston later this winter for follow-up care, and again in the spring for reconstructive surgery, PALS will take her down and bring her back, for free.
On Thursday, weary from her experience and eager to get home to her kids, Carson said PALS has been a godsend.
“This has been just great,” she said during a brief stopover at Bangor International Airport. “It is amazing they’re able to organize something like this.”
Eileen Minogue, operations director at PALS headquarters in New York, said the nonprofit organization, incorporated in April of this year, is fueled entirely by private donations of time and money.
Experienced private pilots like Platz volunteer their time, their experience, and their aircraft, she said. About 60 pilots from Maine to Florida participate.
“These are people who love to fly, who love the mission and love to give back,” Minogue said. A cadre of “carPALS” provides ground transportation from the airport to the receiving hospital, treatment facility or hotel — also completely free of charge.
For Nicole DeGennaro of Winterport and her husband Peter, PALS provided a critical link to essential care in Boston. Diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia last November, two days before his 27th birthday, Peter DeGennaro in February underwent a bone marrow transplant followed by a six-week course of chemotherapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
He tolerated the procedure well and was “doing great” when he returned to Maine, Nicole said, but his doctors wanted to see him weekly and then every other week for follow-up tests, examinations and medication monitoring.
“He never could have tolerated the trip by car,” Nicole said.
Altogether, PALS pilots flew more than 20 missions with Peter and Nicole — the last one in July, after the leukemia regained the upper hand, when the couple and their 5-year-old son, Trey, traveled to New Jersey for a final visit with friends and family.
“We got married July 25th and he died August 4th,” Nicole DeGennaro said wistfully, looking though her wedding photos. “We had such a beautiful wedding. Everyone came.”
Peter DeGennaro was a cook at Rosie’s Diner in Winterport, and the son of diner owner Rose DeGennaro.
Nicole said she found PALS on the Internet, looking for help in getting her sick husband to Boston. The organization provided much more than free transportation, she said — she and Peter found a warm and supportive network of concerned friends.
“It is amazing to see what people do for each other,” she said. “These people have such big hearts. You just don’t think people like that exist.”
Platz, whose professional background includes real estate development and engineering, says PALS makes a big difference in the lives of the people it serves.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to do this work,” he said. Especially in Maine’s far-flung northern regions, he said, free air transportation can make it possible for people to access care that’s not available closer to home.
“The alternative may be that they don’t get the care they need,” he said.
To qualify for PALS transportation, patients must have some financial need or a medical condition, such as a severely compromised immune system, that prevents them from using public transportation. Because PALS is not an air ambulance like the LifeFlight helicopter service, patients must be ambulatory, able to get in and out of the aircraft with minimal assistance, and medically stable.
For information about PALS, visit www.palservices.org or call toll free 888-818-1231.