Chris Potter was not a fan of flying, until a group of pilots he had never met transported him to his life-saving care team.
Potter, then 42, was struggling through a relapse of acute lymphocytic leukemia in 2011. His cancer was not responding to treatment, and he required at least a temporary remission to handle the arduous stem cell transplant that might save him. Although he was eligible for a clinical trial led by Daniel D’Angelo, MD, PhD, at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC), it required weekly appointments at DF/BWCC’s Boston campus – but Potter lived 380 miles away in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
His immune system was already compromised, and Potter risked getting sicker being around large crowds. The English teacher couldn’t afford that many trips anyway, and since his wife worked as a college professor, moving temporarily to Boston and leaving her alone with their three young children wasn’t feasible.
“I had a potential cure, but no way to get to it,” Potter recalls. “I was stuck at home and preparing for the worst.”
What Potter needed was a miracle; what he got were angels.
Angel Flight East (AFE) is a nonprofit organization that facilitates free air transportation for children and adults with medical conditions requiring treatment far from home. Using an online scheduling system and a network of volunteer pilots with single- and twin-engine planes, AFE flew 600 medical missions last year in 28 states. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute treated 24 of them.
“All expenses, including fuel and plane rental or upkeep, are handled by the pilots,” says Jessica Ames, programs and events coordinator for AFE. “These are people who love to fly and enjoy helping others while doing so. Their passengers start out as total strangers, but often become their friends.”
This was the case for pilot Dean Tzitzis, who traveled from his home airport in Princeton, New Jersey, to Lancaster, and flew Potter to Dana-Farber. When Potter’s father, a former crop-duster pilot, came along, they talked flying.
Meeting Potter at a low point and seeing him grow strong enough to handle a stem cell transplant in May 2012 deeply impacted Tzitzis.
“Chris was always so positive; even when he was really sick, he felt like he had turned the corner,” says Tzitzis, one of several pilots to fly Potter during his treatment. “He was the most inspirational person I have ever met. Being a part of his recovery was a privilege.”
It also led to what Potter calls “an amazing wrinkle that knit the whole experience together.” The pair stayed in touch, and when a few years later Tzitzis’ brother-in-law developed leukemia, Tzitzis reached out to his former passenger.
“I told him everything I could, and connected his brother-in-law with Dr. D’Angelo and Robert Soiffer, MD at Dana-Farber, who had performed my transplant,” says Potter, now recovered. “They gave him a reaffirming second opinion and the confidence to continue with their treatment plan.”
This, in turn, led to two powerful reunions. When Tzitzis’ brother-in-law – a private pilot who plans to fly for AFE when he meets the requirements – celebrated his remission, Potter traveled to New Jersey for the occasion. Then, when Potter held a “Feast of Friends” to thank all who helped him through his long cancer journey, he had two very special guests:
The German woman whose stem cells saved his life, and the angel who helped him live long enough to get them.