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A Drive to Help

By Mary Openshaw
The Facts Published August 9, 2009

If a person is willing to give someone a lift to the hospital, they might find it lifts their own spirits, too.

Houston Ground Angels, a network of volunteers that drives out-of-state patients, often cancer patients, from the airport to doctor's appointments in the Houston Medical Center, needs volunteers in Brazoria County.

"The Dow Chemical corporate jet comes out of Michigan every day and when they have empty space, patients in Michigan can come down here for free," said Kathy Broussard, the Baytown resident who founded Houston Ground Angels. Volunteers meet the plane at the Brazoria County Airport and drive the patient to their appointment in Houston, or to their hotel.

"That's it," Broussard said. "You don't have to wait for them." Also, it isn't necessary for the same person who takes a patient to Houston to go back to get them. Another volunteer can do that.

"You can do it as much as you want or as little as you want," said Kathy Cardiff, Houston Ground Angel's mission coordinator.

Simply providing a free ride can be the difference between a person being able to get treatment for their disease or not.

"Cab fare one way (from Brazoria County Airport) is more than $100," Broussard said. "For lack of simple things like cab fare and hotel cost, patients will forego their treatment and stay home and die."

Broussard has done charitable flying since 1997 and was active with a Dallas-based group before starting Houston Ground Angels in 2003. It was a cancer patient named Eva who gave Broussard the idea. Broussard had been flying Eva from Kerrville to Houston for cancer treatments. One day, Eva told her she wouldn't be coming for her appointment because she couldn't afford cab fare from the airport to the medical center. Broussard convinced Eva to let her drive her to the appointment.

"I brought her here to Baytown and then on the way down there, I said, 'Eva, what if we open this up to all of Houston? There are other people who are financially in a bind.' She said, 'Oh, that would be great!'"

Broussard put an ad in the paper and got roughly 200 responses. Sadly, Eva has since died, but the program she inspired now consists of about 200 active drivers transporting patients to and from 14 airports in the Houston area. The need for more is growing.

"Last year we transported right at 1,200 people for the whole year, and we're at that right now," Broussard said.

Currently, Broussard says there are no Houston Ground Angel volunteers in Brazoria County. When patients come into Brazoria County's airport, a volunteer from Baytown, Houston or another area picks them up. In Broussard's case, that adds up to a 165-mile round trip.

Volunteers can check the organization's Web site, www.houstongroundangels.org, for "missions" - patients in need of transportation - and only sign up for the ones they want to take on. Also, volunteers from Brazoria County wouldn't be asked to pick up a patient from Bush Intercontinental Airport.

"They would strictly be for the Brazoria County Airport," Broussard said.
Driving for Houston Ground Angels is tax- deductible, and patients sign a release form before they ride, to protect the driver.

In a month, Broussard estimates three or four patients come in and depart from Brazoria County Airport. "It may happen two times in one week and then it may be three weeks before we have another one come in," she said.
Just having a ride to and from the medical center is a relief for patients.
"It takes the stress away if you know someone's going to pick you up that knows where they're going," Broussard said.

But drivers benefit, too.

"One of our new volunteers e-mailed me last week and said, 'I don't know who's getting more out of this, them or me,'" Cardiff said. "For a lot of us, cancer has been in the family or friends, and you want to try to help. You meet some of the greatest people because of their attitudes. They teach you a whole lot."

Would-be volunteers can visit www.houstongroundangels.org or they can call (281) 900-7377. They've got to have a valid Texas driver's license and car insurance, but other than that, the main requirement is being willing to give some of their time.

Volunteers can get to know the people they drive very well.

"You can meet them one time, and it's like they're part of the family already," Cardiff said. "You get to where you want to keep up with them and find out how they're doing. A lot of them are very open and want to tell you what's going on. I kind of feel like a counselor sometimes."

Sometimes, that can be hard. Cardiff told the story of a young girl from Hawaii who battled bone cancer for a year and a half. Cardiff drove the family from the airport to the hospital many times, partially because she was able to meet their flights, which often arrived at 11:30 p.m.

"I didn't mind, because they are just the sweetest, kindest people," Cardiff said.

Though the girl's prognosis was good at the outset, the cancer spread. She died in January, and the family had a memorial service for her in Houston.
"That was a real doozy, when I picked Mom and Dad up to take them back for their last flight home, and she's carrying the box with her daughter's ashes in it," Cardiff said. "In some way, even though it hurts a whole lot to be there and help, because you know what might happen, it's still greatly worth it. The mother sent me a message a couple of months ago. I have been looking at it every single day."

On the other hand, drivers also get to witness wonderful success stories.
"One lady comes in every week from Wisconsin, and we became friends," Cardiff said. "In Milwaukee they told her there was no hope. She came to M.D. Anderson and it was a complete different story."

In turn, that woman has started a fund in her hometown to provide money for women to get a second opinion. The family of the young girl from Hawaii also want to start a program like Ground Angels in their area, Cardiff said.

"I can't tell you how many of our patients say, 'When I get through cancer, I'm going to see if I can start something like this where I live,'" she said. "When one lady's husband passed away, she wrote me and said, 'You may think it's just a ride to the airport, but it means so much more than that.' They say it's nice to know there's someone there waiting for them."

BE AN ANGEL

To learn more about the Ground Angels program, visit www.houstongroundangels.org. To volunteer, call Mission Coordinator Kathy Cardiff at (281) 900-7377.

Mary Openshaw is a features writer for The Facts..

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