100,000 angels

Published 10:09 pm Monday, February 4, 2013

Don Garlow shows off his plane in a hangar at Landmark Aviation at Norfolk International Airport. He routinely flies for Mercy Medical Airlift, which transports patients who need specialized medical care in other areas of the country.

Mercy Medical Airlift, an organization headquartered in Virginia Beach, recently celebrated its 100,000th patient transport, and dozens of those flights are attributable to a Suffolk pilot.

Don Garlow, a Nationwide Insurance agent by day, routinely flies for the organization’s best-known program, Angel Flight. The program recruits private pilots to use their time, money and airplanes to transport patients in need of specialized medical treatment not available in their area.

“I see this as one way I can help others that’s unique,” Garlow said from the cockpit of his Cirrus SR20, which he hangars at Landmark Aviation at Norfolk International Airport. “It just seemed to me that would be a really noble thing to use this skill you have and blessings you have to help others.”

Email newsletter signup

Mercy Medical Airlift traces its roots to northern Virginia in the early 1970s. Founder Edward Boyer and a core group of other pilots recognized the need for volunteer pilots to help people facing complicated medial issues.

“He had a heart for helping people and wanted to use his flying skills for humanitarian purposes,” said Suzanne Rhodes, director of public affairs for Mercy Medical Airlift. “If you have a rare disease and there’s only one specialist in the country who treats it and your life depends on it, you’ve got to get there.”

Garlow got started flying in the U.S. Army, where he was a helicopter crew chief. He got back into it about nine years ago, when his wife bought him a flight at Hampton Roads Airport in Chesapeake.

That flight reawakened his interest, and Garlow soon was going to air shows and then purchased his own plane.

He has flown patients, from those battling cancer to children with cleft palates, all over the eastern seaboard, sometimes handing them off to another pilot to finish the next leg of the journey.

“It’s a huge sense of responsibility,” he said. “We just love to fly.”

Rhodes said Angel Flight is only one program of Mercy Medical Airlift. The organization also includes Air Compassion for Veterans, a commercial airline program that partners with five major U.S. airlines in case a volunteer pilot is unable to fly; an Angel Bus program that allows ground transportation via commercial bus lines and rail, and Air Compassion America, which includes discounted air ambulance flights.

Rhodes said the organization’s volunteer pilots, including Garlow, routinely go the extra mile for their patients — sometimes dropping everything to fly a transplant patient when an organ suddenly became available, or helping arrange transportation to and from the airport, even though that’s supposed to be the patient’s responsibility.

“We think they perform an incredible service, and all the sacrifices they make to do what they do,” Rhodes said. “We feel very blessed and privileged to be able to accomplish such a milestone. It’s really extraordinary serving people who have such great needs. Human energy just isn’t enough — we recognize this is part of God’s work.”

The organization relies on donations to fund its operations. For more information, visit www.mercymedical.org or www.angelflightmidatlantic.org.