A trip in an airplane saved Cody Welch’s life. “When I was very little, my father owned an airfield in Alpena, MI. I had a health emergency, so he flew me to the hospital,” he recalls. “While I was growing up, we transported a lot of patients out of that airfield to distant medical care facilities.” It only made sense that, after succeeding in an aviation profession all his own that Welch restarted the practice.
A professional pilot for nearly his entire life, Welch began to foster the idea. “At first, I had the plan to offer my services as an air ambulance. I talked to the area hospitals, but they were more interested in using helicopters for patient transport,” Welch explains. Instead, in 1995, he founded Mid-Michigan Medical Flights to help get sick patients to far-away hospital destinations. “Soon after, I met a gentleman who was doing the same thing on the west side of the state and he suggested I become a chapter of his organization,” adds Welch. He agreed and in 1996, Welch changed the name of his operation to Wings of Mercy East Michigan.
We need more pilots who are willing to volunteer, as well as monetary donations and access to funding for the fuel we need.
A volunteer pilot organization, Wings of Mercy provides free air transport to distant medical facilities for those in financial need or with inhibited mobility. “We are not an air ambulance,” Welch clarifies. “We do not have someone on call at all times. We provide transportation just as you would via car, except we do it in much less time.” For example, Wings of Mercy does not do timely organ transplant transport; however, once the transplant has occurred, they will take a patient to as many follow-up appointments as needed. The organization has taken people to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Boston Children’s Hospital, Univ. of Wisconsin, Univ. of Pittsburgh, Staten Island and other distant destinations. On one occasion, they flew to Haiti to help a child get to the U.S. for care. “For those who need the help, some of these places may as well be on the moon,” says Welch. For financial reasons or others, if someone requires help from a distant medical location, Wings of Mercy can get them there.
Every one-way flight to a medical center with a patient is called a mission, with some patients requiring more than 50 flights. “Over the years, we have been helped by nearly 350 pilots and have flown nearly 3,000 missions,” states Welch. “Every mission is different and not every case works out the way we want it to. Still, it is incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. It affects the quality of life for every person, regardless of the outcome.” Welch recalls a story of a gentleman he transported to a doctor who told him he had a year to live. The gentleman told Welch, “This trip was worth it. I learned I have another year and I can get a lot done in that time.” On another mission, a teenage boy was diagnosed with aggressive leukemia and his mother did not have the means to get him to the care he needed. “We flew him on four missions. He didn’t make the fifth, but his mother didn’t have to live with the guilt that she couldn’t get him to the best care.”
The need for this kind of service is huge and Wings of Mercy struggles to keep up with the demand. “We are trying to expand to be able to help as many people as possible,” explains Welch. “We need more pilots who are willing to volunteer.” Wings of Mercy is also in need of monetary donations and access to funding sources to reimburse pilots for the fuel they need. “Every dollar we get goes to fuel costs,” he states. “Fuel is expensive right now and can average $800 a mission. Our goal is 100 missions a year. We haven’t turned anyone down yet, but there were times when it was close.”
To raise funds, Wings of Mercy holds a few annual fundraisers such as the Runway 5k and the annual “Wings for Michigan” event (for details, visit wingsformichigan.org). Donations can be made at wingseastmi.org.
Wings of Mercy is dedicated to helping those in need get the best chance for their best outcome – a long and happy life. “It’s a rewarding experience for all involved,” Welch shares.
If you would like to work as a pilot for Wings of Mercy, visit wingseastmi.org and click on the “pilots” tab for a list of requirements, application and contact information.
If you or someone you know are in need of non-emergency transport to a distant medical facility, please call 866.326.3729 and speak to the recipient coordinator.