Blue Bell’s Angel Flights spread wings to save lives
by Lou Mancinelli
In 2009, at two weeks old, Brayden Bateman was diagnosed with a rare case of eye cancer. Only about 300 children each year in America are diagnosed with retinoblastoma (RB), the condition with which Bateman was afflicted.

To care for her baby, her third, Sabra Bateman was forced to take unpaid leave from work. Her husband Jason was a self-employed insurance agent. Jason himself had lost an eye to RB as a 20-month-old infant, but more on that later. If he did not work, he was not paid.

Sabra and Brayden Bateman are seen with pilot, Robert Collins, on one of many “Angel Flights” the Bateman family has received because of Brayden’s rare case of eye cancer.

These conditions stressed the family’s resources. The family lived, and still lives in Greenville, South Carolina. But the medical help they needed, some of the best medical help they could get in the country, was a 10-plus hour drive away in Philadelphia at the Wills Eye (America’s first) Hospital.

“He didn’t have to say cancer,” said Bateman’s mother about her reaction when the doctor told her Brayden’s condition at her first appointment with a pediatric eye surgeon. “He didn’t have to say retinoblastoma. I knew Brayden had cancer.”

Mrs. Bateman’s doctor told her the best chances the family had of saving Brayden’s left eye, which had an 11-millimeter tumor, was to see Dr. Carol Shields at Wills. Shields is the associate director and attending surgeon at the hospital and one of the nation’s leading physicians in treating eye cancer.

“There is no way I could have done it myself,” said Bateman. The driving and the costs were too much. That’s when Angel Flight East (AFE) spread its proverbial wings. But unlike the phoenix, AFE flies beautiful flight after beautiful flight.

“The first time I called them, they just took over,” said Bateman about the people at Angel Flight, with whom she was connected by a social worker at Wills.

Founded in 1992, AFE is a Blue Bell-based nonprofit organization that coordinates and facilitates free flights between patients and pilots, who incur the cost of travel. The group first organized in response to emergency needs for Hurricane Andrew and has since grown to include a dedicated network of more than 350 pilots, 100 ground volunteers and a small staff. During its first year, pilots flew 17 missions. In 2011, pilots flew more than 750 missions for patients in 24 states.

AFE operates out of Wings Field in Blue Bell and connects patients and pilots in the eastern region of the U.S. If patients need care beyond that, its staff works to connect patients with similar organizations in the desired destination area. To fly, patients must be stable, able to board an aircraft and fly in a single- or twin- engine aircraft. Volunteer pilots use their own private planes for the trips.

For Bob Smith, head of AFE’s pilot committee, learning to fly was a lifelong dream. He started to learn in 1999, earned his license in 2000 and joined AFE when he could. To join, pilots must meet Federal Aviation Administration and insurance regulations as well as having flown flown 300 hours and have an instrument grade rating, which means they know how to operate their aircraft with its instruments when there is no line of sight. “We are all so blessed and fortunate to be able to fly,” said Smith, 65. “We feel we need to give back.”

Most recently, Brayden, now three, flew into Philadelphia with his mother the second week in March for his 20th surgery. Smith flew the Batemans from Virginia to Wings Field, the second leg of the trip, about a $700 out-of-pocket expense. Smith said the biggest issue facing the pilots is weather. Their main goal right now, aside from safe flying, is recruiting new pilots.

In addition to care at Wills Eye Hospital, Brayden has received care at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. When in town, his family stays at the Ronald McDonald House or a local hotel.

At 20 days old, Brayden began his first six months of systematic — two days a month — chemotherapy. In December, 2009, he had a recurrence and again underwent chemotherapy. At present, there are six tumors in Brayden’s left eye and three in his right. There is a four-millimeter blind spot in his left-eye as well as a radioactive plaque in his right-eye to kill a tumor that failed to respond to chemotherapy.

Because it is hereditary, this will be a lifelong issue for Brayden. Doctors told the Batemans there was less than a 10 percent chance they would have a baby with RB. Retinoblastoma is a malignant tumor caused by immature baby cells in the retina, a thin layer of nerve tissue that coats the back of the eye and enables the eyes to see.

If it spreads, it can affect the lymph nodes, bone or bone marrow, but rarely the central nervous system. The cells tend to stop dividing around age five, which is when many children, especially the offspring of parents with RB, like the Batemans’ first two children, no longer need to be tested. Eighty percent of children with a genetic form do not have a parent with retinoblastoma.

The most common sign of the condition is the presence of white-eyes, as opposed to red-eyes when photographed. White-eyes in a photograph were what inspired Jason’s mother to take him to the doctor at 20 months old only to discover her baby had a large tumor in his left eye, which meant the eye had to be removed.

For the Batemans, Angel Flight has taken the anxieties, and not just the economic worry, out of their problem of traveling to Philadelphia. “The pilots absolutely became like family to us,” said Mrs. Bateman, who added that there were only three times when a flight could not be arranged, one being a snowstorm that blanketed the city with two-and-a-half-feet of snow.

“I think you learn as a parent of a child with cancer, you take it day by day,” said Bateman, 36, who has worked as a full-time insurance claims agent for 17 years. She is also on the board of directors of, a Los Angeles-based group dedicated to spreading awareness about retinoblastoma.

“Worrying will not fix anything,” she said. “[Brayden’s condition] helped me put things in perspective. The laundry sitting on the couch can wait. It’s OK to wait to clean the dishes until after everyone goes to bed. What’s important is being a good parent and spending time with your kids.”

Ed. note: Angel Flight East’s fourth annual On Angels’ Wings Gala will be held on Friday, April 27, at Normandy Farm in Blue Bell and will honor pilots and patients.

Sabra Bateman will be one of the speakers at the Gala. Her son Brayden, now 4, who had cancer in both eyes, now seems to be almost completely cured. For more information, visit