COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – It’s 2:00 in the morning outside a private hanger at the Columbus, GA airport. Bud Allen, a local real estate developer, is firing up his private jet for a special overnight flight to help save a life.
“I’ve always had an interest in flying ever since I was a little kid,” says Allen. “My dad flew helicopters. I got out of flight school about 45 years ago now. I’ve been flying ever since.”
Besides flying for business and pleasure, Bud also uses his Cessna Citation jet to help transport human organs from the hospital of a donor to the recipient’s hospital.
Bud says there’s an underlying reason for wanting to do it. “My sister-in-law passed away in her 30’s on a heart transplant list waiting for a heart.”
Bud started flying with a company out of Gainesville, GA that does medevac flights. “They have their own planes and pilots. When they can’t get somebody to get out of bed at 2:00 in the morning, they call me.
“What generally happens is…I’ll get a call usually late in the evening, around 10:00 or midnight. They’ll say we’ve got a trip, can you do it? At that point in time, I’ll have a couple of hours to get the weather, the facilities, figure our route, determine our weight and balance, get our fuel loads up, file our flight plans, and get to the airport and take off.”
On this particular night, Bud and his co-pilot, Terry Wiggins, were headed to Birmingham. After going over all of the pre-flight preps, they taxied to the end of runway 6 in Columbus and throttled up to begin the first leg of their mission. Wheels were up at 2:23 a.m. eastern time.
The flight to Birmingham didn’t take long at all. We hadn’t been in the air half an hour before the city lights came into view. Wheels came down at 2:53 a.m. eastern time. We taxied to a far corner of the airport and parked on the tarmac awaiting the arrival of the organ retrieval team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. That included the cardio-thoracic surgeon, the procurement transplant coordinator, and a clinical specialist with the company that manufactures the transportation device for the heart. Once they were on board, we began the second leg of the journey to Mississippi. Wheels up at 4:08 a.m.
As we made the westward flight, a patient who wished to donate their organs was on life support at a hospital in Jackson. The doctor on board reviewed some notes in preparation for the surgery to remove the heart. We touched down at 4:52 a.m. and the retrieval team wasted no time de-boarding and heading for the hospital. Accompanying them was a cart with a specially designed container which would house the heart during transport.
Time is of the essence when you’re involved in the organ retrieval and transplant process. Bud says, “In the case of a heart, there’s about a three-hour window. What my doctors have told me in the past is that every minute that passes in which an organ is not in a recipient, the prognosis does down.”
While we were waiting at the airport for the retrieval team to return, we noticed several other jets on the tarmac. We learned that one of them was waiting for the donor’s lungs to be taken to Chicago.
Bud finally got a call from the surgeon, but it wasn’t the news he was expecting to hear.
“It’s rare with a heart that this happens.” says Allen. “As part of the process the doctors make a determination whether or not the heart is acceptable, whether there’s any damage. And in this case they decided that the heart…they were not going to be able to use it. Whoever the heart recipient was that night did not get a heart. We just hope they live long enough that another one will become available.”
By 7:20 a.m. we were all back on the plane headed to Birmingham. The mood was noticeably subdued. The retrieval team eased off into a light sleep. As we flew toward an orange-bathed horizon, the hope of a new day helped us deal with what had just happened.
“I tell people we fly from tragedy to hope…that’s what we do,” says Allen. “We go somewhere that someone’s suffered an incredible tragedy, and we’re flying that organ to somewhere where somebody’s life is going to get to start over again.”