When James Russell learned that he had a rare form of appendix cancer, he thoroughly investigated his treatment options.
His research led him to Dr. Armando Sardi, a surgical oncologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore who is one of a few specialists worldwide who performs an aggressive, cutting-edge procedure on patients afflicted with advanced stage abdominal cancer.
New York resident Russell, a husband and father of two, proved to be a strong candidate for the potentially life-extending procedure. There was, however, a catch: His home is a three-hour drive from Baltimore when there's no traffic. A car ride home after a surgery lasting nearly 15 hours could be extraordinarily taxing for Russell.
Fortunately, he won't have to worry about the exhausting ride or nail-biting traffic on Interstate 95. Russell and his wife plan to fly for free on Southwest Airlines to and from Baltimore for the procedure.
The couple received round-trip tickets from Southwest's 2013 Medical Transportation Grant Program. Established six years ago, the program was created to ease the financial burden on families confronting serious medical problems that require travel for treatment.
Shuttling back and forth for preliminary visits with Sardi already has proved fairly exhausting for Russell, who is receiving chemotherapy as he prepares for the complicated surgery this summer at Mercy.
In 2013, Southwest expects to provide free transportation valued at more than $2.8 million to patients and their caregivers at more than 90 nonprofit hospitals and medical facilities nationwide, which this year included Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital and Mercy Medical Center. Since its inception, the program has bestowed more than $10 million in airfare to healthcare organizations in 24 states.
The idea for the grant program came in response to a need that was repeatedly expressed to the airline by family members of people suffering from illnesses.
"We had moms, dads, brothers and sisters calling on behalf of their family members who were in a position where they couldn't afford to travel to get treatment," Debbie Wafford, who manages the airline's Medical Transportation Grant Program, said. "They were pouring out their hearts to us."
Prior to the establishment of the Medical Transportation Grant Program, the airline would grant requests for free or reduced airfare on a case-by-case basis, but the number of such requests became overwhelming. Establishing a formalized program that selects medical organizations, or "partners," based on specific criteria allows for a more balanced approach and a wider reach.
Hospitals chosen to become partners in the program typically are considered "destination hospitals" — that is, they offer cutting-edge treatment methods, advanced technology, and uniquely trained staff members not available at other hospitals.
Such is the case with Mercy's Sardi, a pioneer in the delivery of hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), a complex surgical procedure that combines the removal of cancerous tumors from the abdomen with the delivery of heated chemotherapy directly to the space between the membranes separating the organs in the abdominal cavity, known as the peritoneal cavity.
"Although most of our patients are from the Mid-Atlantic area, we have patients from all over the country," Jeanne Biemer, who coordinates oncology-related grants for Mercy, said. "Many choose Mercy because of the personal connection they make with the HIPEC team on their first visit and the outstanding reputation that Mercy has established in the field."
That's what brought the Russells to Mercy.
"After doing all my research, I learned that you really can't take this cancer lightly and just go to any surgeon. That's what brought me to Dr. Sardi," Russell said, adding, "I have all the confidence in the world in him."
Soon, Southwest Airlines will be on the lookout nationwide for other outstanding treatment methods and the providers who deliver them.
From the beginning of August through September, the airline will be accepting applications for new partner hospitals and medical organizations for its medical transportation grant program. Interested candidates can learn more on southwest.com.