At 1 p.m. on Friday, his 7th birthday, Wes Pak completed his seventh cycle of 3F8 monoclonal antibody treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. At 6 p.m. his family greeted him on the tarmac at Rick's Aviation in Newport News, thanks to PALS (Patient Airlift Services) and volunteer pilot Larry Labriola.
Diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma in June 2011, Pak has been making the trek from his family's home in York County to New York City for treatments for over a year. "He's a frequent flyer with PALS (Patient Airlift Services)," said his mother, Krista. "They've never missed a flight." And there have been 24.
The volunteer medical flight organization has literally saved Wes' life, she said. Their association started last Thanksgiving, when Krista put out a plea on the group's Facebook page. Local surgeons had told her that they could only remove 80 percent of the 13 centimeter tumor in her oldest son's abdomen. Talking to other parents, Krista learned of the world-renowned specialists at Sloan-Kettering and the unique antibody treatment offered there.
After she and her husband, Myong, made contact with the surgeon in New York, they had only a few days to make travel arrangements for the scheduled operation. They looked into every option, from commercial flights to buses, and also tried other charity groups, but the holiday set up a roadblock at every turn. It took Eileen Minogue at PALS less than 24 hours to make contact and arrange for a flight and the trio was on their way. Wes spent 10 hours in the operating room where the surgeon successfully removed the whole tumor. "He got every bit of cancer out," said Krista. Wes has been cancer-free for nine months.
However, he has to return frequently for scans and the weeklong, painful antibody treatments that he started in March and will continue into March 2014. Heavy doses of Dilaudid see him through them. To date, according to his mother, he has undergone 17 weeks of inpatient care, eight cycles of chemotherapy, 14 cycles of radiation, four surgeries and six cycles of Accutane, an acne medication that's also used to kill neuroblastoma cells. "This came as quite a shock. It just happens. The doctors don't know why," she said. The couple also has a 2-year-old son and is expecting a third in March.
Greg Benson of Boonton, NJ, has been Pak's pilot on several occasions. He flies Wes and family members back and forth in his six-seater Cessna 210 from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport to either Benson's home airport in Morristown, NJ, or to White Plains, NY. "He's a good-natured little kid. I'm glad I can do it," Benson said.
Since becoming a volunteer PALS pilot in October 2010, Benson has flown 23 flights for the group, or about one a month. He estimates each flight costs him around $700. A "semi-retired" businessman, who works around 50 hours a week, Benson has to watch the weather as his plane doesn't have de-icing capability. He has a range of between 400 and 500 miles and has flown patients up and down the East Coast and into Ohio. Each outing involves several hours of preparation and paperwork in addition to the flight time.
He's particularly impressed by Pak's support group. "Whenever I pick him up, there's always a party of 10 or 12 people," he said. The group typically includes his grandparents and several aunts and uncles. Usually Benson flies Wes and his dad, Myong, who was laid off from his construction job last year. Krista has used up all her time off from the Newport News shipyard, including "borrowed hours" that her colleagues donated to her, so she hasn't been able to accompany him for nine months.
The family are supremely grateful to PALS, which also provides ground transportation to the Ronald McDonald house where they stay during Wes' treatments. It's important not only for getting him the care he needs and the savings, said Krista, but also to protect him from exposure to others on commercial transit. "That's critical for a kid with a compromised immune system," she added.
Despite having health insurance, the family owes $63,000 in medical bills and their house went into foreclosure this week.
"Cancer affects everything," Krista said.
Want to know more?
For more information on Patient Airlift Services, PALS, go to http://www.palservices.org, or call 1-888-818-1231. To learn more about Wes, go to Facebook and search "Wes' fight against neuroblastoma."