Hope Air arranges thousands of free flights each year for patients like 10-year-old Kalena Samaai and her mother, Kathy, who require specialized medical treatment far from home. | Hope Air

In Prince George, over 700 kilometres north of Vancouver, eight-year old Kalena Samaai was diagnosed over a year ago with ulcerative cloritis, a disease infecting the large intestine. A disease similar to Crohn’s, it has since required Kalena – who is now 10 – to receive treatment every five weeks from a specialist doctor. Accessing medical care in small communities, however, isn’t always easy. Kalena’s treatment, which requires an IV infusion, isn’t available in Prince George.

“[The doctors] said they don’t do that here, or if they do, it’s for adults, not children,” says Kalena’s mom, Kathy. One nurse explained to the family that specialized clinics visit Prince George every three months, but Kathy says that that isn’t an option for her daughter. “If we’re not able to treat her properly we don’t know what would happen,” she says.

When Kalena was diagnosed, the family was told they would have to travel to Vancouver to receive her infusions. The same nurse suggested the family take advantage of services provided by non-profit organization Hope Air. Hope Air provides flights for patients requiring non-emergency medical treatment that isn’t available in their own community.

“I called Hope Air and explained to them what was happening and how often we go down to Vancouver,” Kathy says. “When we explained what was happening, they worked with us.”

While flying from Prince George to Vancouver only takes an hour, flights can cost up to $400 for a return trip – per person. Kathy and Kalena fly to Vancouver for treatment at least nine times a year, which can cost over $7,000. And Kalena’s disease is permanent.

The alternative is a 12-hour drive, and the pair would have to miss even more time out of school and work. Additionally, flying is less overwhelming than driving, and avoids potential animal encounters on the road and icy weather that can slow them down.

While flying for treatment instead of driving can be less stressful, financial issues can also take a toll on patients and their families. This is why Hope A ir is important, says Leslie Louie, donor relations officer for the organization. In B.C., patients travel to Vancouver for medical treatment from cities across the province, including Kelowna, Penticton and Kamloops, in addition to Prince George. Patients are treated for cancer, heart conditions, mental health and more.

Louie, who has been working with Hope Air since 2011, got involved with the organization after attending countless appointments at BC Children’s Hospital for her own children. “When you live in Vancouver, getting to an appointment or hospital when needed is a short drive – or in my case, within walking distance,” she says. “It’s easy to forget that.” Getting involved with Hope Air was an easy decision because of the families she met from “all over B.C. who travelled many miles to get the first-class care Children’s Hospital provides.”

Hope Air flies adults in need as well as children. Jim Ferguson (not his real name), 30, is another patient who has flown with Hope Air. Ferguson, also living in northern B.C., was diagnosed with AIDS five years ago. Like Kalena, services were not available to treat his diagnosis locally, and Ferguson continues to see an AIDS specialist in Vancouver. If not for the option of flying at no charge with Hope Air, he would spend over $300 on a bus ticket each time he travelled to Vancouver, and just as long on the road as Kathy and her daughter would in their car.

“It’d be nice to have [specialized] services available here, but we’re just so far away from Vancouver and all the specialists are there,” says Kathy. “The specialty services are hard to find because we’re far north. It’s not the most ideal place that people want to move to, especially doctors.”

In 2013, Hope Air arranged flights for more than 7,000 people across Canada. In B.C., Hope Air arranged over 4,000 flights for people in 2012, with the majority of clients travelling for treatment, and the rest for assessment and follow-ups.

“Hope Air is huge,” says Kathy. “For us, it’s really big because of the time that Kalena would be losing from school, and work for us. All that plus the amount of money – we can’t afford to pay for the flights.”

For more information about Hope Air and to donate, visit www.hopeair.ca.