BUFFALO, NY - "He loves to play," said Samantha Panfil of her smiling 7-month old son, Jack. "To look at him, you would never think anything was wrong with him. To look at him, you just think he's a happy, healthy kiddo."
As clear as it is that he is happy, baby Jack is not healthy. It started with a few small dark lumps that appeared shortly after birth; Samantha and her husband Scott took Jack to get checked out, hoping it was nothing. But the bumps did signify something very serious; soon the couple learned their son was suffering from Neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer.
"They found a large tumor on his adrenal gland, which is, you know, kind of the hallmark of Neuroblastoma," said Samantha Panfil.
Soon, Jack would need treatment at a hospital that specialized in the rare disease, but the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center is in New York City.
"With the Chemo, his resistance was really really low, so we couldn't go on a commercial flight, we were just thinking, oh gosh, we're going to have to drive," said Samantha Panfil.
That's when they heard about Wings Flights of Hope. At first the Panfil's thought it was too good to be true.
"Everyone gave us the name, and said, make sure you call these guys, they'll take care of you, and you know everyone thinks, oh, no, no one's going to do something like that, there's got to be a catch," said Scott.
But in a world where there's no free ride-- this flight, would indeed cost them nothing; but the Panfils say it was the pilot's flexibility that was really priceless. When they found out on Thursday they had a Monday appointment:
"Wings was like sure, no problem! They took us down that morning, and they took us back that night," said Samantha Panfil.
Joe DeMarco founded the program. In it's 7th year, Wings now has 200 volunteers. The pilots all use their personal aircrafts, and wings reimburses them for fuel. Most of the flights leave from Buffalo, but they are expanding.
"As a pilot you have a plane and you're always looking for a reason to go somewhere. And there's no better reason to jump in this plane, than to take this family, with little baby Jack to New York to a place where he can get better."
Wings is flying on average one flight a day-- and each passenger, DeMarco says, is a true fighter.
"They're not ready to give up the fight, so wings becomes instrumental in their fight to survive," said DeMarco.
And as for baby Jack-- he's doing well, with a good prognosis. And he's becoming a pro-- this is his third flight.
"He just falls asleep and sleeps through the whole thing," said Scott Panfil.
And Mom and Dad are sleeping easier too.
"To know there are these wonderfully experienced, kind people who will take us where we need to go, it's, it's just a load off our shoulders, I can't even, I can't even tell you," said Samantha Panfil.
Wings Flights of Hope is holding a sunset cruise Thursday evening as a fundraiser. For information on that event or how to contact Wings for more information about a flight, click here.