Sandra and Ramiro’s first flight anywhere was on a commercial airline to Florida for a vacation. Sandra has claustrophobia. Her only thought as they waited on the tarmac in a plane that was delayed for a reason she can’t remember was that she “was going to die.” She didn’t really ever want to fly again.
Fast forward to her first flight with AFW to Seattle for her husband’s treatment of stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma of the throat. The couple lives in Yakima, WA and Sandra says, “there aren’t too many doctors that know that much about this type of cancer in Yakima.” This and the combination of Ramiro’s compromised immune system and COVID lock down at the time, made commercial travel unsafe and unavailable. So, AFW was able to fly the couple to Seattle Integrative Cancer Center 13 times for treatment with Dr. Nick Chen.
At first, they thought Ramiro had allergies because his coughing and sinus drainage seemed to replicate Sandra’s own allergies. However, something was wrong as he continued not feeling well and in November 2020, they saw an ENT doctor in Yakima who ordered tests which confirmed a 70% chance of throat cancer.
Ramiro never smoked, but the doctor asked if he ever drank alcohol. Sandra said that “he did like his whiskey,” but she had never heard that that could be a cause of cancer. The doctor in Yakima recommended chemo and radiation treatments and said, “Your lives are going to change dramatically from here on out.” They removed one of Ramiro’s tonsils and part of his tongue.
After the surgery, the amount of radiation and chemo that the doctors were recommending didn’t feel right to Sandra and so she started doing research. She found some conflicting recommendations for this type of cancer. When the doctor who did the surgery referred Ramiro to their dentist to get clearance that his mouth was healthy enough to endure the radiation, it was her dentist who referred her to Dr. Chen.
She knew right away that this was a doctor who was open to both western and other types of therapy she imagined was possible. Since this was during the COVID lock down, they had to wait until Dr. Chen was available to see them. Once they had their appointment, it was Dr. Chen’s office who recommended AFW. The couple qualified for a flight as Ramiro is not working and Sandra is the sole breadwinner cleaning offices and houses.
Once they had their AF flight scheduled, Sandra’s anxiety kicked in and she said, “I was so skeptical. I thought I’m gonna lose it. So, when I saw our AFW’s first plane, I thought again, ‘Oh my god, we’re gonna die. I told my parents to pray for us.’” After the first few flights, she managed to get used to the experience and says, “The pilots are amazing! These planes are not new you know, and I thought ‘how are they going to carry us all the way there?’ All these things were going through my mind. But I was so grateful as the pilots explained everything they were doing and gave us headphones so I could hear what they were saying with the control tower–which helped.”
Sandra explained one flight where the pilot had to turn around because ice was forming on the wings, and he couldn’t reach altitude. She handled it well because she saw the pilot was calm and the tower was guiding him to return and land. “I just told myself he knows what he’s doing.” On this and all of their flights, her husband “just closes his eyes and sits in the back.” For Sandra, she found it helpful to concentrate on the controls, but soon saw that she was “missing out at how beautiful the clouds are if you just look outside.”
Ramiro was pronounced cancer free in May. He had no radiation, only chemo and other natural remedies. He is still eating through a feeding tube but has introduced some shakes and will be seeing a speech therapist to help with speaking as a result from his tongue surgery. He has lost his job at Costco as a customer service representative who needs to talk on the phone. Because of that, they now have the struggle of paying for cobra health insurance which has doubled their premiums.
As all passengers who have used AFW, Sandra and Ramiro are tremendously thankful for the organization. She is grateful to the pilots who helped her with her claustrophobia by explaining what she was seeing and what they were doing. It was “very educational. We even got to fly in a limo kind of plane compared to one like a dodge I guess you’d say.” And I guess for Sandra, whatever kind of plane it was that carried her husband to health, doesn’t really matter.