Wings of Mercy: For a Holland Couple, a Flight Meant Less Worry
August 21, 2014
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  • A Wings of Mercy flight doesn’t just mean a free flight, traveling faster than by car or being able to avoid commercial airlines — it means someone else is there to help.

    For Vicki Kavanaugh of Holland, finding Wings of Mercy meant less worry. Suddenly there was someone else there to help her, help her husband.

    “It was like being with family,” she said.

    Mark Kavanaugh was diagnosed with obstructive hypertrophic cardio myopathy earlier this year. He needed to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a surgery that would take out the obstruction. Vicki started looking for flights and found they would cost between $900 and $1,800 each. To drive meant more than eight uncomfortable and still costly hours on the road.

    The cost was one obstacle. But getting Mark — who in March had trouble walking distances and breathing — through an airport and its security, a layover, another airport, to a hotel and more, was what really worried her. The return flight, after open-heart surgery worried her even more.

    “He was in pretty bad shape,” Vicki said.

    And then a friend mentioned Wings of Mercy.

    The couple would fly with other patients on a Citation II Bravo donated by Metal Flow owner Leslie Brown and piloted by Gary VanderVeen, the company’s chief pilot. They flew out of the West Michigan Regional Airport.

    “The company gives back in a lot of ways, but this is the fun way,” VanderVeen said.

    On the day of the flight, “I knew I just had to get here and everything would be OK,” Vicki said.

    The patients on the flight to Rochester were supposed to return to West Michigan together on a Friday, but Mark suffered some minor complications. Vander Veen had to make a special trip the next day for Mark and Vicki.

    The extra flight certainly didn’t bother VanderVeen. He has 46 years and more than 18,000 hours of flight experience. He started as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot. He has been a corporate pilot for the past 17 years.

    He’s been flying with Wings of Mercy since 1994 and has flown more than 100 missions, said Grace Spelde, executive director of the organization.

    “He’s taught half our pilots to fly,” she said.

    Prior to needing the flight, Vicki had heard of Wings of Mercy, but knew nothing about it. The couple’s health care provider was no help with travel arrangements.

    “We need to get the word out there,” Spelde said. “We need the people who need us, to know about us.”

    As for Mark, the prognosis is good.

    “Everything is progressing as it should,” he said.