A volunteer airborne medivac service has taken off with its inaugural flight out of Cranbrook, taking an Elk Valley-based patient to the Okanagan for a specialist oncology appointment.
Angel Flight East Kootenay, a volunteer flight service created by Brent Bidston and Todd Weselake, has been in the planning stages for the last few months, but that all came to fruition on Monday morning. Jewel Shepherd, a local medical patient, took to the skies in a Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche en route to Kelowna for a medical appointment that was only expected to take 30 minutes.
Needless to say, a two-hour round trip flight is much more palatable than a 12-hour round trip on the B.C. highways.
“It means a lot, because this way, I now know that I can fly there and get there on time for my appointments,” she said. “That’s really important for me to be able to go there.”
Shepherd said she has been back and forth to the Lower Mainland for medical appointments fairly frequently since the beginning of the year, her last trip being another checkup in Vancouver.
Bidston, who served as a captain with Korean Air in the A330 fleet as part of a 30-year career as a commercial airline pilot, retired to the Elk Valley over a decade ago. He joined B.C. Ambulance Service for a decade and also started up the Elk Valley Air Search and Rescue Association, a division of the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA).
Weselake, his Angel Flight East Kootenay partner, has lived in Fernie for the last 20 years, and is an experienced mountain flyer and aviator.
“We are the third group in Canada to be trying to do this,” said Bidston. “I heard about the idea, so I looked into it, but for the southeast of B.C., East Kootenays and West Kootenays, we have a particular problem now that our patients are much more restricted going into Alberta. We always used to send our patients to Calgary, but they are so rushed and so busy now that they’re accepting very few of our patients, so that’s left all of our residents of this area having to go to Kelowna as the nearest advanced care.”
While Angel Flight East Kootenay is a volunteer partnership that primarily serves cancer patients, it is also available for anyone in need that has to travel to the Okanagan for medical appointments.
“Today is quite a good example where they have to go all the way to Kelowna and back for a 30-minute appointment, but it’s an important appointment and it has to be done,” said Bidston.
The fledgling organization recently accepted a $5,500 donation from Teck and has been accepting corporate and private donations to get the service off the ground, with enough to finance roughly seven or eight flights.
“We’re pleased to support Angel Flight East Kootenay and their dedicated volunteers who help to connect Elk Valley residents with important health care services,” said Nic Milligan, Teck’s Manager of Social Responsibility..
Anyone who wishes to donate to Angel Flight East Kootenay, can do so through their website.
Bidston says the organization initially wants to conduct flights out of the Elk Valley Airport and the Canadian Rockies International Airport in Cranbrook, but adds that there are pilots in the West Kootenay who have expressed interest in volunteering.
“We’re really hoping that this grows as the demand does,” Bidston said.