Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2023

Angels in the cockpit: Through Angel Flight West, volunteers take those in need on healing journeys

Angel Flight for Elana Armas

L.E. Baskow

Sheena Armas looks on as Omar Armas hugs their daughter Elana, 11, saying goodbye as the burn victim is headed out to Burn Camp with an Angel Flight departing from the North Las Vegas Airport on Saturday, June 11, 2016.

Angel Flight for Elana Armas

Elana Armas, 11, is a burn victim and headed out to Burn Camp with an Angel Flight provided by volunteer pilot Dr. Joey Adashek departing from the North Las Vegas Airport on Saturday, June 11, 2016. She is seen off by her parents Sheena and Omar. Launch slideshow »

Elana Armas was cooking chicharrónes when she noticed the oil she was heating up had started to turn black. The 10-year-old poured it into a plastic container she’d placed on the stove, and when she went to move it, the bottom melted immediately.

Scalding oil spilled down both of her legs.

Elana screamed, and her 17-year-old sister ran into the kitchen and rushed her into the bath, placing her legs under cold water so the oil would stop burning her. Elana’s mother, Sheena, had been working overnight and overtime as a trauma nurse at University Medical Center and woke up to the screams as her daughter suffered second- and third-degree burns. She called her boss and raced Elana to UMC’s burn center, stunned and embarrassed that she wasn’t awake when it happened.

“Elana is a big, adamant baker; our whole family cooks together,” Sheena said. Safety tips had always been discussed and practiced. The accident took the entire family by surprise.

Every day for two weeks, Elana went to the Lions Wound and Burn Care Center at UMC, Nevada’s only burn center. Her legs were covered with mesh bandages and Aquacel, a wound dressing with ionic silver that helps prevent scarring, and the skin healed remarkably well. She was fortunate enough not to need grafts, and after the initial treatment phase, Sheena was able to dress and care for her daughter’s wounds at home.

The process wasn’t always easy. Elana was a soccer player and spent time on the sidelines after the accident, watching her teammates. Sheena recalled that Elana was scared of what others would think of her scars, initially saying how ugly her legs would be and how she’d never be able to wear shorts.

At the burn care center, Sheena learned about the Lil’ Roar Pediatric Burn Survivor Support Group and an opportunity for her daughter to go to a camp for burn victims, Champ Camp, where she knew Elana would enter a judgment-free environment. She also learned of Angel Flight West, an organization that ensured the girl’s flight was free to the June camp in Fresno, Calif.

Angel Flight West, a nonprofit headquartered in Southern California and serving 13 western states, is sustained by volunteers providing free, non-emergency air travel for people of all ages with serious medical conditions and other “compelling needs.” For families looking for treatment and other resources that are inaccessible because of medical, geographical or financial reasons, Angel Flight West makes it possible.

The organization flies 10 missions every day. For pilots, there is no obligatory amount of fly time. Volunteer hours are at the pilot’s discretion.

The one who helped Elana, Dr. Joey Adashek, is a high-risk pregnancy doctor at his practice, Desert Perinatal Associates, and an advocate for the work done by Angel Flight West.

Adashek got involved because he loves to fly and had the resources to help. He has been a pilot for Angel Flight West for five years and has taken kids for rare medical care, chemo treatment and camps like the one Elana attended.

Adashek explained that each week, Angel Flight West sends a list of patients who need help. His time may be limited, but he flies missions once a month. Summers are usually slower because of the heat, but in the past few years, Adashek has taken kids to various burn camps, a woman to a cancer center at UCLA, and a little boy with a rare skin disease to get treatment in Arizona.

“I love to fly, and now I’m doing it for a good reason,” Adashek said. His plane, a Cirrus, can typically carry a small child and parent, or kids in Elana’s condition can fly solo. Planes are inspected by Angel Flight West, and pilots are screened to make sure they have up-to-date training and certification.

Adashek said the reward is instantaneous. He pays for the fuel, grateful to give families the chance to get where they need to go. “I’m hoping to be doing it forever,” he said.

Sheena said the experience opened her eyes, and her daughter’s. After coming home from camp, now-11-year-old Elana said, “I wanted to come back because I missed you, but I didn’t want to leave.”

Her perspective on her situation had changed. Elana met a young boy at Champ Camp who had burned 80 percent of the skin off his body. She told her mom, “It really hurt my heart to see how bad this boy was burned, when I only got burned on my two legs.”

She still plays soccer, loves to bake and is now involved with support groups.

“Scars tell stories,” Sheena says. “If we can help educate other families through our experience, we want to share.”

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