Friday morning, a Pilatus PC-12 plane lifted off from Cortez Municipal Airport, carrying 15-year-old Nick Lester to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego for cancer treatment.
The Dolores teenager has acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer.
The diagnosis on April 8, 2017, has complicated the teen’s life, adding obstacles such as intensive treatments, a compromised immune system and missed classes.
Travel has been especially challenging.
This was the 11th flight for Nick provided by Denver-based nonprofit AeroAngel, and the treks have been greatly beneficial, his parents said.
“Sometimes when we fly there, we get back before we’d even get there in a car,” Nick said.
He cannot travel on a commuter plane because of his weakened immune system, and travel by car is a painful three-day ordeal.
“He battled it up in Denver the first time,” his mother, Kristin, said. “And then after four months of being home and in remission, he relapsed, and then we went out to California because my sister lived there, and he got treatment for the second round of cancer. And a bone marrow transplant.”
Acute myeloid leukemia occurs when the body creates abnormal white blood cells, making it harder for someone to fight off infection, according to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The disease is much more commonly seen in adults.
The first time Nick underwent treatment, the long stay in Denver had been difficult. Nick’s father tried to commute to Denver, and Nick’s older brother shuffled around between friends’ homes. So the second time, since they knew the bone marrow transplant would be a long process, they decided to move to San Diego, since Kristin’s sister lived near Rady Children’s Hospital.
They stayed in San Diego for nearly a year before returning to Dolores.
The illness has been tough on Nick and his family. It’s a form of cancer not often seen in kids. Many of the medicines have been tested and approved only for adults, so insurance plans won’t always cover them. Drug costs can be staggering, Kristin said.
And the treatment has led to other health difficulties for Nick. The bone marrow transplant has led to a graft disease, in which donor cells essentially attack his body. Chemotherapy and steroids have weakened his bone density and have led to osteoporosis, so Nick no longer can play football and wrestle like he used to. He’s lost a lot of blood from the treatment, necessitating multiple blood transfusions, and he now has too much iron in his blood.
Overall, though, he’s been a “rock star,” said his mom. Despite missing about 360 classes, he’s kept up academically, earning straight A’s and strong test scores. Lately, he’s been honing his cooking and jam-making skills.
“I’m doing good,” Nick said. He will be a sophomore at Dolores High School this fall.
The Lesters have returned to the San Diego hospital for follow-up visits about once a month. But Nick’s compromised immune system prevents him from boarding commuter flights, and the painful 12-hour drive poses a risk for his internal organs, his mom said.
Which is how they connected to AeroAngel.
AeroAngel was founded in 2010 and provides free transportation – mostly for children – to those who need to travel a distance to receive urgent medical care.
“There is a tremendous need for these flights,” said Mark Pestal, founder and president of the organization. “(AeroAngel’s) goal is to establish a nationwide network to make a flight available on short notice for any child needing to travel and who has no other safe options. We do not accept any compensation for our passengers.”
A plane also offers passengers with serious medical conditions some flexibility.
“With medically fragile passengers, we’re able to divert quickly to get medical help if necessary; not something you can do when driving across Nevada,” Pestal said. So far, they have flown more than 100 flights across the country.
Last year, AeroAngel received a Learjet 55, a midsize business jet, which has helped to expand their coverage nationally.
Nick flew on a Pilatus PC-12, a jet turboprop plane, Pestal said, because the Learjet was down for maintenance.
“They’ll be home tonight in time for dinner,” Nick’s father, Kevin, said.
James Patrick “Pat” Dye was one of the volunteer pilots on the flight. He’s the senior captain on the Learjet and is qualified on the PC-12.
Dye has flown a variety of kids around the country to their necessary treatment – a girl from North Dakota to Houston, and young foster twins from Montana to Denver.
“These are things, there’s no monetary value that you can attach to them,” he said. “Because it’s a human life.”
Nick has become a regular passenger and a favorite of the crew.
“He’s a pretty special child,” Dye said. “A special person.”
Nick may increase his follow-up visits to twice a month, so the Lesters might go up to Denver for some time, Kristen said. The experience has led to her to start painting and drawing pictures of children fighting cancer, along with those who helped her son through his treatment. She hopes to bring awareness to the reality of childhood cancer and raise funds for research.
For more information, contact Kristin Lester at Kristin.firstname.lastname@example.org.