Frequent Flyer

Winging It: Wurtzburger takes patients to faraway hospitals.

Jon Wurtzburger C’57 ownsa six-seater prop jet, which he doesn’t like to leave idle for long. So the New York resident flies patients around the country to receive chemotherapy, reconstructive surgery—and, at a moment’s notice, the occasional organ transplant.
    His goodwill costs him thousands of dollars a year in fuel and upkeep. The payback, he says, is watching many of his passengers get better.
    Wurtzburger, who recently retired as a governor on the New York Stock Exchange, is president of AirLifeLine, an organization of more than 1,000 volunteer pilots who provide free air transportation to treatment centers around the country for financially needy patients ( Medical insurers typically won’t cover transportation costs, and sometimes the only place that provides a necessary medical treatment is located halfway across the country from a patient’s home.
    Wurtzburger says he learned how to fly small planes while he was a student at Penn. He also learned to adjust his hopes for entering medical school after flunking both chemistry and physics as an undergraduate.
    But later, while working on the stock exchange, he was able to convert his interest in medicine to an alternate use. “I found a lot of larger airplanes were sitting on the tarmac unused. I figured maybe I could join an organization that could fly sick people and at the same time have fun flying.” He became a volunteer for AirLifeLine, which has flown 17,000 missions since its creation in 1978.
    The organization was recently awarded a million-dollar grant from Ronald McDonald House Charities to spread the word about its services; it has also become partners with the American Cancer Society. Wurtzburger expects the group’s pilot base and missions to increase in the coming year. 
    During the 150 missions he’s flown for the charity, Wurtzburger has met some unforgettable people. About a year ago he transported a 50-year-old man to Pittsburgh for an emergency kidney transplant, landing in a blinding snowstorm. The patient was taken away in an ambulance and Wurtzburger spent the night in his plane, flying back just before dawn to work on the stock exchange. “Around 11 o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from the patient, asking if I was okay. He had gotten a brand new kidney and was more worried about me than about himself.”
    It’s easy to get emotionally involved with passengers, Wurtzburger says. He regularly transported one cancer patient and her husband from rural Minnesota to New York for treatment. “With all of her difficulties, she always loved to take the wheel and fly,” he recalls. “Our families got very close.” Wurtzburger was continually amazed by her serenity before she died, leaving behind five children. “She was fighting the good fight, but she was at peace; there was no anger. I learned a lot from her, much more than I ever did at school.”
    Ninety percent of AirLifeLine’s volunteer pilots have their own crafts; in addition to donating their time, they pay for fuel and maintenance, which can run from $200 to $1,000 per mission.
    As Wurtzburger explains, “They’ve been lucky [in life] and are giving something back.”

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