CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) — More than 5,000 people, who are fighting for their health, have been helped by Wings Flights of Hope. The organization flies patients, of all ages, to get specialty surgeries and treatments that aren’t close to home.
And News 4 photojournalist, Rich Ersing, and reporter Kelsey Anderson were invited on a flight.
“I believe I had a life purpose and this is it,” Joe DeMarco said, the founder and a pilot for Wings Flights of Hope. “Some people go their whole life without realizing it.”
Anderson and Ersing showed up to Prior Aviation, in Cheektowaga, at 6 a.m. the morning of their flight with the organization. DeMarco was there wiping and spraying the plane to fully sanitize it for their upcoming trip to Teterboro Airport, near New York City.
“It’s just special being apart of someone’s fight to survive,” DeMarco said.
Natasha Kolken, of East Aurora, is fighting that fight.
“It’s just devastating, because I have a young family and it just hits you out of nowhere,” Kolken said.
Natasha and her husband Matt boarded the Piper Malibu, en route to treatment in New York City. Within 10 minutes of parking their car, they were taxi’ing the runway. This was the couple’s 19th flight with Wings.
In June, Natasha, a mother of 11-year-old twins, went to the doctor to get a cyst on her ovary removed. That procedure led local doctors to finding cancer in her stomach. And then, the doctors told Natasha and Matt something no one wants to hear: there was nothing they could do.
“We felt kind of hopeless, but the best thing to happen to us was feeling that way because it turned your flight/fight instinct on and we realized we needed to find somebody who is doing new, innovative things,” Natasha said.
And that’s when they found a doctor in NYC. When Natasha and Matt first started going there, they bought commercial flights, but the inconvenience and germs made that travel extremely risky.
“We kept saying, ‘there’s gotta be something out there for patients that are going through this.'”
And one day, out of the blue, Natasha’s best friend learned about Wings Flights of Hope. The very next day, Matt’s secretary brought up Wings to him.
“We have a lot of things you can’t explain, and I give a lot of credit to the angels,” DeMarco said. “I call them my angel co-pilots”
DeMarco will call that moment, when Natasha and Matt just happened to learn about Wings when they really needed it, an ‘Angel Moment.’
DeMarco started Wings Flights of Hope nine years ago. His wife Diane does all the behind-the-scenes work. The angel wings on their logo are in honor of his late sister.
“She was like my second mom, she was the oldest (and) I was the youngest,” he said. “She was misdiagnosed back in ’87. For a year a doctor told her there was nothing wrong with her and she ended up with pancreatic cancer after a year of not feeling well.”
Before DeMarco started the organization, he was a pilot on the side. His bread and butter was a construction company.
“I really don’t think I’d be alive still,” he said. “I was so crazy about work and getting things done.”
He now does 250 to 350 flights a year with Wings Flights of Hope. Sometimes he does two flights a day, some weeks he doesn’t have a day off. And he doesn’t get a dime for any of it.
“There’s a lot more to life then getting money, ya know.”
After an hour flight, Joe landed on a cloudy day in the outskirts of NYC. Once on the ground, Natasha met with Dr. Manish Shah, at Weill Cornell Medicine. He specializes in gastric oncology. Natasha receives immunotherapy twice a month, which boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. She’s in a two-year trial, waiting for a cure.
“We’ll be there for their fight, there’s no limit on the flights, some people say, ‘how many flights can I have?’ As long as you need us,” DeMarco said.
A few hours later, the Kolkens headed back to the plane. Joe was there, like he always is, to take them home.
“He has a real warm aura around him,” Matt said. “There’s something about Joe. He’s been put on this earth to help people, and he’s helping a lot of people.”
There are 18 pilots who fly for Wings. They’re your neighbors: local doctors, an architect, a car dealership owner. They all do this out of the goodness of their hearts. And they’re all volunteers. They’ll fly anyone, of any age, with any financial background.
“If you’re feeling hopeless because of a diagnosis that is dire, and if you need to seek medical treatment with specialists that are outside of this area, you need to reach out to Joe and Diane because they will be there to help guide you through the process,” Matt said. “They are amazing people, and we are so thankful to have them.”
The weather was gloomy in NYC the day News 4 flew with Joe, Natasha and Matt, but above the clouds, the sun was shining. It was perfect up there, and there was hope. It’s exactly what Wings Flights of Hope is giving to the people the pilots fly: hope that the sun is always shining above the clouds.
“She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Matt said about his wife. “We’ve got two little ones and home and they need their mother.”
“We’re a good team, so we’re going to fight through this,” Natasha said.
There’s a stigma that you have to be below a certain financial marker to get a Wings flight. That is not true. They will fly people with any sort of finances. All you need to do is provide a few pieces of information to get a flight, like an appointment verification.
Click here to get in touch with Wings about a flight.
Wings Flights of Hope also relies solely on donations. Click here to support their cause.