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Gift of Life, Gift of Flight

By Ginger Buxa

Five-year-old Ashlyn Rowley doesn’t know much about airplanes. She doesn’t understand the difference between a single-engine and a jet, and doesn’t concern herself much with the meaning of words like “altitude” or “airspeed.” But when her mother, Jill, informs her of upcoming doctor appointments, Ashlyn immediately asks, “Do we get to fly in the small plane again?”

For Ashlyn, flying with AirLifeLine volunteer pilots is always a fun adventure, one that usually involves her entire family: parents Quinten and Jill and little brother Carter. But the importance of these adventures is immeasurable. AirLifeLine’s compassionate and generous volunteer pilots provide young Ashlyn with access to ongoing treatment for her lifesaving kidney transplant at the Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, hundreds of miles from her home in Corona, California. At Stanford, Ashlyn also participates in a unique study that seeks to reduce the number of harsh medications and negative side effects for pediatric transplant patients.

Founded in 1978, AirLifeLine is a non-profit organization whose nationwide network of nearly 1,500 volunteer pilots donates free flights for people in need. AirLifeLine’s volunteer pilots, who are mostly private general aviation pilots, provide free air transportation as often as necessary for Ashlyn and nearly 9,500 other passengers across the nation each year. These volunteers provide critical services by donating free air transportation for:

• Medical missions for people with financial need to reach medical care far from home.

• Transplant missions for time-critical travel associated with a transplant procedure.

• Humanitarian missions for people with financial and other special needs.

• Cargo missions to transport blood, organs, or tissue.

• Disaster-relief missions in times of crisis.

Each year AirLifeLine volunteer pilots fly thousands of passengers to more than 450 destinations, saving them more than $4 million in travel costs annually. More than 40 percent of AirLifeLine’s flights support children and families, like Ashlyn Rowley and her family.

At the age of four, Ashlyn endured a kidney transplant after struggling with congenital nephrotic syndrome since birth. After searching for a kidney donor and evaluating her grandfather and other family members as candidates, it was decided that Ashlyn’s mother, Jill, would give her the gift of life - again. In September 2001, Ashlyn received one of her mother’s kidneys, after enduring over four years of renal failure, open heart surgery, a year of dialysis, and endless months of waiting. It’s hard to imagine their journey was just beginning.

In the fourteen months since her transplant, Ashlyn and her family have flown with AirLifeLine over ten times to reach follow-up appointments which provide the close monitoring necessary to prevent rejection and infection. AirLifeLine volunteer pilot Alan Sheiness from Orange County has flown Ashlyn and her family for two of these flights.

“It’s been an honor for me to fly Ashlyn to her treatment,” says Alan. “She is just as cute as can be, and when you see her sweet smile and cheerful personality, you would never guess she’s had such serious health issues.”

Alan has been an AirLifeLine pilot since March 2001, and he and his Cessna Skylane have already flown over 15 missions. “I love it. I think it’s a great experience for us pilots, as well as for the passengers.”

In early 2001, Alan took it upon himself to search for volunteer opportunities that would allow him to use his pilot skills and plane. He found on the web and signed up immediately. “It’s a great opportunity for me to share my passion for flying with people who really need this service. It allows me to expand my experience and improve my pilot skills because I take my AirLifeLine responsibilities very seriously,” says Alan.

Alan is a married father of three, and works as the Chief Financial Officer of the Tax & Financial Services Division of Automatic Data Processing, a payroll processing company based in San Dimas, California. His employer supports his volunteer efforts by allowing Alan to leave work to fly AirLifeLine missions without having to use vacation time.

Ashlyn fondly recalls one of her first trips with Alan. “He was really funny, and he let me sit by him and he took a picture of me with my dolly,” she said.

Jill and Quinten heard about AirLifeLine through Ashlyn’s social worker at Stanford, and through people they met at the Ronald McDonald House when they stayed there for over two months after her surgery.

“AirLifeLine has been such a blessing to our family,” said Jill. “We could not have gone through this without the support of AirLifeLine and all of the pilots and staff, but especially Alan. He has been so good to us - kind, compassionate, gentle, and so accommodating.”

Becoming an AirLifeLine pilot volunteer is easy and simply requires a current pilot’s license, FAA medical certification, liability insurance, and a minimum of 200 hours PIC time. Pilots are not required to have additional medical training – their role is to transport passengers and not to provide medical assistance. Although it helps if the pilot is instrument-rated, it isn’t a requirement, and ideally, the aircraft should have at least four seats as many passengers bring a support person (parent for a child, etc.) and will have some luggage.

In addition to giving their time and expertise, AirLifeLine pilots also donate all flight costs. These generous volunteers are the backbone of an organization funded entirely by tax-deductible donations.

AirLifeLine passengers come from all walks of life, from all over the country, and have a wide variety of medical conditions. When they request flight assistance, patients are reviewed to ensure they meet physical and financial qualifications. Generally, AirLifeLine passengers must:

• Be ambulatory or need little or no assistance to board and exit the aircraft for safety reasons. People with wheelchairs or other equipment are welcome to fly as long as a support person can help them board and exit the aircraft safely.

• Be medically stable and able to fly in an un-pressurized aircraft. Medical professionals are welcome to accompany passengers, however planes are not medically equipped. Oxygen tanks are allowed with the pilot’s consent.

• Demonstrate financial need. Only passengers who cannot afford commercial air transportation may receive free flights from AirLifeLine.

Currently, AirLifeLine is in need of more volunteer pilots in nearly every area of the country, to meet the growing demand for this vital humanitarian service. For more information, or to sign-up, visit or call toll-free 877-AIR LIFE.
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