Maine men become PALS on flights to Boston hospital

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Two Maine men undergoing identical heart treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have developed a friendship during occasional airplane trips to and from the hospital with Patient Airlift Services, a nonprofit group. 

Tim Dunham of Sumner and Peter Cashman of Winterport met on their first flight down to Boston together from the Auburn-Lewiston Airport late last year. 

The two men suffer from heart disease and are being treated by specialists of the ventricular assist device team at Brigham and Women’s. A VAD is a mechanical device used to replace the function of a failing heart.

PALS is a network of pilots across the northeastern United States who provide free air transport to patients who need to receive medical diagnosis, treatment or follow-ups. 

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Pilots donate their time, fuel and aircraft to help patients “eliminate transportation as a barrier, allowing them to access treatment with the least amount of stress for the best possible results,” said PALS in a news release. 

Feb. 11 marked the third PALS flight Dunham and Cashman have taken together. 

A pilot flies to Bangor to pick him up, then stops in Auburn to get Dunham, Cashman said on Friday. 

On their first trip, the two strangers struck up a conversation and quickly realized they were dealing with the same condition and were being treated by the same team of doctors in Boston. 

For Cashman, meeting someone who was going through the same treatment was a pleasant surprise. Even though his doctors told him VAD implants are common, he hadn’t met another patient until he ran into Tim. 

“I was down in the hospital for at least four weeks, and I never met another person that had a VAD,” Cashman said. “So I was kind of surprised.”

Their trips together give the two men time to talk about their treatment, complain and generally commiserate about life with a VAD, Cashman said. 

“It’s good to have some solidarity,” he said. “It’s been helpful to have somebody else in a similar situation,” he continued, even if the two often go months without contacting each other.

Dunham was unavailable for an interview, but his wife,  Donna Dunham, said the PALS flights with Cashman have been incredibly helpful. 

“It’s been really good because you get to talk to someone who understands what you’re feeling,” Donna Dunham said. 

“If one of us is having problems cleaning the site, we’ll call the other one and ask ‘what techniques did you use?'” she continued. “We bounce ideas like that off each other a lot.”

In a statement from PALS, Tim Dunham said that the free flights from Auburn and ground transportation from Boston’s Logan Airport to the hospital have been a huge relief for he and Donna, both emotionally and financially.

Auburn resident Michael Barnard, the pilot who flew Dunham and Cashman to Boston and back last Tuesday, joined PALS last summer and started flying with Jim Platz, another Auburn-based pilot who is one of the founders of PALS and a member of its Board of Directors. 

He and his fiancee believed that volunteering with PALS was the best way to give folks that live far away from the medical treatment they need a helping hand, Barnard said. 

“It’s not like being down in New York — it’s Maine,” he said. “The people that really need the help are far away from the expertise. I’m a pilot. I have the capability to help out.”

Although Barnard has only completed four PALS flights so far, he pointed out that there are many other dedicated pilots in Maine who have put in hundreds of hours transporting patients to get the help they need. 

“I’m just a very small part of it,” he said. “There are a lot of good-hearted pilots that are helping out.”

pmcguire@sunjournal.com

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