Medical help on ‘angel’s’ wings

Medical help on 'angel's' wings

For one local oral surgeon, being able to combine his two
– flying and helping others – is like a drug.
For one local oral surgeon, being able to combine his two loves – flying and helping others – is like a drug.

“It’s an elixir,” said Joseph McMurray, 47. “When I found out I get to help people and fly, I said ‘Cool, sign me up.’ It was a no-brainer.”

McMurray isn’t the typical pilot. And the people he flies aren’t the typical passengers. They’re a woman whose only lifeline is the monthly flight from a remote town in southern Oregon to San Francisco, where she receives an experimental drug to combat the cancer eating away at her liver; the young couple who speak only Spanish, bewildered by the disease that’s caused their wailing infant to undergo half a dozen surgeries within the first few months of his life; the 10-year-old girl who, so exhausted from her cancer treatment, sleeps soundly through the bumpy flight from San Jose to Bakersfield.

McMurray is one of 1,900 pilots who volunteer their time and planes to fuel the operations of Angel Flight West, an organization launched 27 years ago in Santa Monica to help those who are geographically, financially or physically unable to make the critical journey to hospitals, loved ones and safety alone. The pilots also foot the bill for the fuel and flights, which are typically several hundred dollars.

Without her monthly Angel Flight from Canyonville, Ore. – an isolated town of about 17,000 – to San Francisco, Beverly Schwark “would be in so much trouble, I don’t know what I’d do,” she said. “I would be sick as hell and probably wouldn’t have made it.”

Doctors removed one of Schwark’s kidneys in 2003 after discovering cancer and she thought she was fine for five years. Then it came back, this time attacking her liver. Just over a year ago, she started traveling to the University of California, San Francisco Cancer Center at Mount Zion for a trial drug to combat the papillary renal cell carcinoma that could take her life. In only two months, six tumors on her liver multiplied to 20.

“It was very aggressive. The only thing that’s keeping me alive is this experimental trial drug,” she said. And her only way to get the drug is with the help of Angel Flight.

“These guys are great,” she said of her pilots. Of McMurray, “he is so nice. You instantly like him. I only flew with him once but he is just wonderful. I can’t say enough.”

With a bottomless pool of energy fueling his exuberant personality, McMurray recalled one happy memory in the cockpit after another as he steered his golf cart down the tarmac of the South County Airport in San Martin, the hula doll glued to its dashboard swaying lazily back and forth. At 6 feet 4 inches, McMurray had his plane specially modified to accommodate his towering frame. As he neared his hangar, a cavernous space his wife refers to as his “man cave,” the animated surgeon’s Bonanza A36 came into view. In the five years he’s had it, the sleek six-seater has served him, and dozens of his riders, well.

“I just love flying,” McMurray said, the perpetual smile on his face widening into a grin.

As with his oral surgery practice, McMurray’s drive to be a better pilot never falters. Reaching higher and giving back are two of his life’s guiding principles and values he tries to instill in his two teenage sons, one who recently graduated from Gilroy High and another who attends school in San Jose. When he’s not flying Angel Flights, or shuttling himself between his two offices in Gilroy and San Jose where he’s been practicing for 13 years, he’s up in the air, practicing to become a certified flight instructor or towing gliders at the Hollister Municipal Airport.

“You don’t stop learning,” he said. “That’s how I look at life. That’s how I look at my profession. You’re constantly trying to improve.”

He’s flown wounded veterans to retreats on the West Coast, burn survivors to Champ Camp in Fresno, and dozens of others with medical or humanitarian needs about the country.

“You just feel so good about what you’ve done that you’re scuttling to the computer looking for the next Angel Flight you can do because you just want to have that feeling again,” he said.

The volunteers that keep Angel Flight running are “a lot like Dr. McMurray,” said Josh Olson, director of mission operations at the organization’s headquarters in Santa Monica. “We have a diverse group of pilots but their common passion is flying.”

Since patients can’t specifically request their pilots, McMurray escorts some on a regular basis, others only once or twice. One of the passengers who holds a special place in McMurray’s heart is a teenage boy he only saw once who needed a lift from South Lake Tahoe to Ontario. Despite the summer’s heat, the boy, a burn survivor, wore a bulky sweatshirt with the hood up to hide his skin grafts.

“He was a boy of a few words,” McMurray remembered.

But instead of buckling him into the backseat, where most passengers prefer to ride, McMurray offered him shotgun and even allowed him to steer for a few seconds.

“He just opened up,” McMurray said. “He started talking. He put his hood back and started sitting up straight. We just had such a wonderful flight.”

After dropping the boy off at the airfield near his home, McMurray couldn’t stop smiling.

“I was so jazzed,” he said. “I felt so good. So what if I have a lot of patients Monday morning. So we have to balance the books. So we have payroll to work through. All that doesn’t matter. I’m flying high.”