Listen: 1586171

Mainstreet Radio's Gretchen Lehmann reports on Wings of Mercy, a program based in St. Cloud that assists with the challenges of rural Minnesotans in finding medical care. A group of amateur pilots volunteer their time to fly rural low-income patients to hospitals in larger cities...and they do all their work for free.


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[ENGINE ROARING] GRETCHEN LEHMANN: Tim Brakstad warms up the engine on his pioneer Cherokee four seater. He's run through this checklist countless times in his 15 years as a pilot. But since 1996, preparing for a flight has taken on new meaning. That was the year Brakstad and a group of amateur pilots began flying missions for the group Wings of Mercy.

TIM BRAKSTAD: Every pilot likes to fly, so any excuse to go fly more is always a plus. I don't think anybody in the group had any idea that they were going to get so tied to it. And I don't think I've ever talked to any of the pilots who've ever flown in the group who haven't come away with something extremely close to them.

GRETCHEN LEHMANN: Brakstad has flown more than 30 missions for Wings of Mercy. He is some 45 pilots who donate their time and their planes to fly low income people to hospitals where they can get specialized medical care. The missions are often very emotional, says Brakstad, but also rewarding. He says he vividly remembers his second flight when he, a co-pilot and two critical care nurses made an emergency trip to traverse city, Michigan.

TIM BRAKSTAD: She was over there at a family reunion. Her cancer flared up. She wasn't able to make the motor trip back home, so her one wish was that she wanted to come back to St Paul, be in her home with her family and her last few days. And yes, she passed away, but she got that one dream that she wanted back that she couldn't economically have accomplished any other way.


GLENN YOUNG: Queen's mercy.

GRETCHEN LEHMANN: Glenn Young is a kind of air traffic controller for all of the Wings of Mercy missions. He takes requests from patients, contacts, pilots, and even monitors weather conditions from the living room of his Litchfield home. Like the pilots, he volunteers his time to help people from all over the Midwest.

GLENN YOUNG: We'll cover Denver, Colorado, down as far South as Joplin, Missouri, then going east Terre Haute, Indiana. We've been to Cincinnati and up to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

GRETCHEN LEHMANN: Young keeps careful records of each flight in a white binder he stores underneath his desk. He says even though he rarely meets the patients and families face to face, he remembers them all and he tries to keep in touch. One of his favorite clients is five-year-old Courtney Mott.

COURTNEY: Here's mine.


COURTNEY: got another one. Don't I?

GRETCHEN LEHMANN: With Christmas fast approaching, the only thing on Courtney's mind is how many of those presents under the tree are for her. Her brief life hasn't always been this carefree. When she was two days old, she suffered the first in a series of liver failures. By age three, she was attracting national attention when she became the youngest person to have a liver and small bowel transplant. Courtney's mom, Michelle, says the first year after surgery, she and Courtney had to make trips once a week from their farm in Canby to the University of Minnesota Medical Center in the Twin Cities. She says they were trips she never could have made without the Wings of Mercy pilots.

MICHELLE: It would have been driving to Minneapolis in Saint Paul, which I cannot do. I'm so scared. It's so good the way they have it set up where we fly into the airport and we call the cab and the cab takes us to the hospital. And when we're all done, the cab takes us back out and to the airport. And the guys fly us back to Marshall.

GRETCHEN LEHMANN: Courtney and Michelle have become good friends with the pilots who fly into Marshall to help them. But this year, there haven't been as many trips to the Twin Cities because Courtney only requires occasional checkups now. It's fantastic news to pilot Tim Brakstad, who holds five-year-old Courtney very close to his heart. Hers is one story with a happy ending.

TIM BRAKSTAD: Most of us look back at it and say even the missions that end in a patient passing away at some point, we know that we've done something positive and that had we not been there, they wouldn't have either gotten the treatment, or they wouldn't have been able to make it home in time.

GRETCHEN LEHMANN: Brakstad and the other pilots with Wings of Mercy head into their fourth year of service this January with a total of 170 flights. Tim Brakstad says he's ready for flight number 171 when he can help a new friend or reunite with an old one.

COURTNEY: (SINGING) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Had a really shiny nose

GRETCHEN LEHMANN: In Collegeville. I'm Gretchen Lehmann, Minnesota Public Radio.

COURTNEY: (SINGING) You repay it goes

All of the other reindeers

Used to laugh and call him names

They never let poor Rudolph join in any Reindeer Games

Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say

Rudolph with your nose so bright, won't you drive my sleigh tonight

Then all the reindeers loved him

As they shouted out with glee

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you'll go down in history


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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