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Decorated World War II veteran and Angel Flight Pilot of the Year John Billings is taking the flight of a lifetime around America to raise awareness of public benefit flying while fulfilling his dream.

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‘When I’m Flying I Don’t Feel Pain’


Karen & Dennis in New Bern

by Stephanie Singer, Intern (Virginia Wesleyan College)

Karen C. has a condition called myasthenia pravis. Trying to say it will twist your tongue. That was the least of Karen’s concerns. This condition rendered twisting, or any other motion, almost impossible.

Myasthenia pravis is an autoimmune disease in which antibodies attack the areas where nerves and muscles join. This causes limited mobility.

“The condition is difficult,” said the 54-year-old woman, who has trouble walking any further than the length of her kitchen.

Treatment Complications

One of the medications doctors prescribed was Prednisone. The drug is an immunosuppressant, meaning that it weakens the immune system. It is prescribed for diseases such as myasthenia pravis.

Unfortunately, Prednisone was not a miracle pill for Karen. Instead, it contributed to another problem: osteoporosis. Her bones became very brittle. Four of her vertebrae broke, and she contracted lumbar pseudarthrosis. This limited her mobility even further.

After being diagnosed with pseudarthrosis, Karen was told she needed rods in her spine, which she was able to have installed. But in February, one of the rods snapped as she was reaching into her washing machine to pull out a shirt.

Karen needed spinal surgery. There was a long road ahead.

From Greenville to Duke University

The first hospital Karen went to was in Greenville, North Carolina. The doctors recommended a body cast but refused to perform spinal surgery. Karen had to look elsewhere for treatment.

Duke University’s medical center had Dr. Richardson, an expert on spinal surgery, on staff. Karen didn’t have the resources to travel all the way to Durham. One of her friends mentioned she had a nephew who flew for Angel Flight. With the help of this volunteer pilot, Karen was able to fly to Duke  for the surgery.

“I have never met anyone who’s more generous, more kind, or more thoughtful than the pilots for Angel Flight,” Karen said.

Potential Cure

She was found to be a candidate for plasmapheresis. With this procedure, a patient’s original plasma is replaced with donated plasma. It’s a fairly new treatment, but it has proven effective in people with autoimmune diseases.

Healing on Wings

Karen has endured a lot of pain from her conditions. But when she travels with Angel Flight, a miracle happens.

“One thing that’s really amazing is when I’m flying, I don’t feel any pain,” she said. “It’s probably a gift from God.”

She’s flown with Angel Flight many times. Although her life is full of difficulties, she remains positive.

“I guess it’s taught me that even out of hard times, good can come out.”