Flights of angels fly patients to good health

Flights of angels fly patients to good health
Brianna Ranzino is pictured with her parents, Lisa and Frank, before her high school senior prom (above), and several years before with her mother on one of many flights to Boston for medical treatment (below). The organization, Angel Flight East, provides free air transportation to medical treatment in distant cities.

Brianna Ranzino is pictured with her parents, Lisa and Frank, before her high school senior prom (above), and several years before with her mother on one of many flights to Boston for medical treatment (below). The organization, Angel Flight East, provides free air transportation to medical treatment in distant cities.

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After years of medical procedures, Lisa and Frank Ranzino were told their 13-year-old daughter, Brianna, had less than a year to live.

Now, five years later, Brianna is a sophomore in college at Immaculata University, ready to declare a major in social work. She wants to work with children.

“When I was sick, social workers helped us a lot,” Brianna said.

“She’s very compassionate. Kids have a soft spot in her heart. She’s been there; she knows,” her mother adds.

But along with social workers and medical professionals, thanks for Briana’s good health goes to a number of volunteer airplane pilots who plaayed a pivotal role in getting her the medical and personal care she needed.

When Brianna was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with a granular tumor that was crushing her airway. Twice she went through surgery to remove the tumor, resulting in extensive damage to her esophagus and trachea.

The holes in her trachea let food and saliva into her lungs. She eventually was unable to swallow and was fed for four years through a feeding tube. She suffered multiple bouts of aspirated pneumonia.

During a third surgery to remove the tumor, doctors discovered that it had grown back larger than expected. Four hospitals told the family there was nothing to be done for Brianna and she was given eight to 12 months to live.

“After the surgery she was crying in the recovery room. She knew they hadn’t fixed her,” Lisa said. “To this day I’ll never forget it. She said, ‘All I ever wanted to do was grow up and have a baby.’”

But Brianna’s family and her doctors at St. Christopher’s found an anesthesiologist and a surgeon who thought they could help Brianna. They were based in Boston at Bingham and Women’s Hospital;.

Dr. Charles Vacanti would attempt to grow Brianna a new trachea from cartilage cells on her rib, in the event that surgeon David Sugarbaker could not remove the tumor without replacing the trachea.

It was the first time Vacanti’s experimental procedure would be attempted on a human. The new trachea would be placed in Brianna’s abdomen to grow, requiring multiple smaller surgeries.

The Ranzinos, members of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Turnersville, would be required to travel to and from Boston two to three times each month for six months, staying at the hospital for a week at a time.

Lisa had to quit her job running a daycare out of her home, and travel costs became a major issue. Lisa considered moving to Boston with her daughter, but that would have separated her from two sons and her husband for months and would have been a significant financial hardship.

It was Brianna’s social worker at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia that told her family about a service that flew families to medical treatments in distant cities at no cost. It’s called Angel Flight East.

The non-profit is made up of a network of private pilots who volunteer their time and their planes to fly critically ill patients to life-saving treatments. It aims to “fill the gap between the need to access crucial medical care at a distance and the high cost of transportation to get there,” according to the organization’s website.

Ellen Williams, executive director for Angel Flight East, says the non-profit conducts 300-400 flights per year. Opportunities are posted online and pilots can sign up for a particular flight, called missions by the organization. The pilots themselves cover the costs of the trip in fuel, and sometimes even the rental costs for a plane if they don’t own one themselves.

The organization currently has 400 registered pilots, of which 120 fly frequently. It covers a geographic area from Ohio to Virginia to Maine. When patients need to go further, they refer them to other “Angel Flight” organizations serving territories across the country.

After six months of flights with Angel Flight East to Boston and back for the experimental procedure, Brianna underwent a 17-hour surgery to remove the tumor. The new trachea wasn’t necessary after all. Surgeons were able to remove the tumor by removing the majority of her esophagus and reconstructing her stomach and trachea.

After five months of hospital recovery, Brianna started as a sophomore in high school in 2010. She battled complications from the surgery for three more years and still suffers from chronic pain, but overall she is healthy, tumor-free and enjoying the college experience. “She has life, she’s here. Every day isn’t easy, but she’s here,” Lisa said. “We’re definitely on the better side of things.”

For more information about Angel Flight East, visit www.angelflighteast.org.

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