Health Hero Challenge

Meet the Volunteer Pilot Helping Patients Access Long-Distance Medical Treatment

Todd Irwin, our 2018 Health Hero, is the president of Board of Directors and volunteer pilot for Angel Flight East, which provides free transportation to anyone needing long-distance medical care.


Todd Irwin was the winner of the 2018 Health Hero Challenge. / Graphic by Meredith Getzfread.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be chatting with some of our past Be Well Philly Health Heroes to give you a glimpse of the people who are helping Philadelphians live healthier lives. Got your own Health Hero to nominate for this year? Do so here.

Name: Todd Irwin

Role: President of the Board of Directors and volunteer pilot for Angel Flight East, an organization that provides free air transportation for those needing to travel to access medical care.

What made you want to become involved with Angel Flight East?

In 2012, I was participating in the Leadership Philadelphia Core Program, an annual program designed to enhance civic awareness, develop leadership, and provide trusteeship training. At the same time, I was working on my private pilot license, which I earned in 2013. I was introduced to Angel Flight East (AFE) through the Philadelphia Leadership program, and this seemed to be a perfect match for my interest in joining a board to give back to my community and my new love of flying. The mission of AFE is quite simply to match people in need of travel far from home for medical treatment with volunteer pilots. These pilots give so much of their time and expense so families are not burdened with the cost of getting to medical treatment. Our services are always free to those in need.

How has your involvement with Angel Flight East inspired you to live a healthier life?

My involvement at Angel Flight East has shown me that I can leverage something I love to do to help others. Access to critical health care is often limited for some who have to travel far, and we are able to alleviate one financial burden from these families. I hope to continue serving others and Angel Flight East even after my board term expires.

How has winning the Health Hero Challenge helped you further reach those in need?

The Health Hero Challenge elevated Angel Flight East’s platform about access to healthcare. Over the past year, we’ve helped 130 families move beyond barriers to treatment because of a combination of distance, cost, and lack of specialists. Our volunteer pilots flew over 87,000 miles this past year. The funds from the Health Hero Challenge helped us work with hospitals here in Philly by connecting them with communities who struggle to access cancer treatment and specialist care.

Along the way, it has also brought us into contact with more pilots, who are the true heroes. They are the ones flying all the people who otherwise would have to drive hundreds of miles to get to see the doctors they need. Being able to provide this service for free takes a lot of cooperation from the community, but it makes a huge difference in the lives of people who need it. Our next steps are working beyond Philadelphia to connect with rural hospitals and rural health clinics getting at some of the systemic issues that are plaguing these more remote communities in access to healthcare.

Why is it important for people to be aware of Angel Flight East, even if they might not be directly in need of its services?

Being aware of Angel Flight East means connecting people to a community of caring. By that I mean each person who knows about this service and what we do, and has access to a network of organizations that help in the most dire of circumstances. We all work together. From Shriners in Philadelphia to the Ronald McDonald House and the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, we are all there for the same reason: to give people a chance at a better shot for a healthy life and help them overcome whatever barriers are in their way. We really want people to reach out because resources are here to help.

What is a misconception you think people have about what it means to be healthy or what they need to do to be healthy?

Our mission at Angel Flight East is not about living a healthy lifestyle, but about providing the means for others to live better, as we help people with serious illnesses access health care. Often, our family passengers need a specialty or are participating in clinical trials, either of which is only available in a specific city. To access this health care, these families have to travel hundreds of miles, and sometimes have to do this with regular frequency. Commercial airfare can become prohibitive for frequent visits. We can help to alleviate this source of stress so they can focus on more important matters: getting better.

Know someone who deserves to join Irwin in the ranks of Be Well Philly Health Heroes? Nominate them here.