July 2011




Mercy flight

by Faith A. Hayden EyeWorld Staff Writer

Texas-based ophthalmologist turns hobby into charity work

Marisela Munoz (center), with her husband (left) and Marc Ellman, M.D. (right), is a breast cancer survivor and Grace Flight passenger Source: Marc Ellman, M.D.

Marc Ellman, M.D., loves to fly, just not solo. Whenever possible, this El Paso, Texas-based ophthalmologist and pilot finds someone to accompany him in his Cirrus SR22, single-engine airplane, be it a fellow doctor, family member, or patient for the nonprofit Grace Flight of America. Grace Flight is a Texas-based organization providing free air transportation for patients with medical needs exceeding the abilities of their hometown care. These patients are usually too ill to drive or fly commercially and often financially strapped; transportation costs are not typically covered by insurance. Multiple days in a car would be very difficult on someone going through chemotherapy, and security lines at major airports can be a challenge for a young, sick child, for example. "Our volunteer pilots donate their time and pay for the fuel and all the operating costs of the aircraft," said Tim Dammon, executive director, Grace Flight of America. "It's a tremendous sacrifice on their part. We have some volunteers who fly on a regular basis. Some fly every month, others a few times a year. It's whatever they can do." Dr. Ellman has been working with Grace Flight for just over a year and has about 10 flights logged. "For some of these patients, besides the illness preventing them from working, the burden of traveling back and forth becomes extremely difficult," said Dr. Ellman. "It's nice we're able to help them relieve some of that burden." Even if no pilots are available, they will donate frequent flyer points or buy tickets for patients to fly commercial. The most common route Grace Flight has in Texas is from El Paso to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; these have about 750 miles or 12 hours by car between them. Because most of the pilots fly small, single-engine planes that don't travel as fast as commercial jets, Grace Flight will break up longer trips between two or even three aviators from similar agencies around the country if the destination requires it. "We try to work with people to get them where they need to go," said Mr. Dammon. "If that means partnering with other agencies then that's what we do." Dr. Ellman frequents the El Paso to Houston route, usually stopping halfway at a small airport in San Angelo, Texas, where another Grace Flight pilot completes the trip. "I try to combine trips as much as I can," said Dr. Ellman. "If I know I'm flying somewhere, I'll see if Grace Flight has anyone that needs a lift as well." Dr. Ellman became interested in flying while in medical school, but it wasn't until he moved to El Paso and opened his own practice, Southwest Eye Institute, that he took to the skies. He began taking lessons in December 2006 and received his pilot's license in March 2007. "Flying is a very intensive activity," he said. "You're concentrating on the different systems, but at the same time, you're not thinking about anything elseyou're just flying the airplane. So even though it's very intense, it's a stress reliever." Dr. Ellman's aircraft is the only commercially made plane with a built-in parachute, but he's not too worried about needing it. "It can be a dangerous activity, but most of the things that kill pilots are preventable, such as flying into bad weather or running out of gas," he said. "There's always that small risk of an engine failure, but that's actually quite rare. You just need to practice good decision making, which starts before you even take off by checking the weather and the airplane carefully." Flying has been nothing but smooth for Dr. Ellman, who is always looking for additional passengers on his trips, including patients for Grace Flight. For more information on Grace Flight and to learn how to volunteer or donate, visit www.graceflight.org.

Contact information

Ellman: ellman@southwesteye.com
Dammon: tdammon@graceflight.org

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