To most people he meets, Joseph DeMarco Sr. looks like a normal guy. To Tim Day and his family, DeMarco looks like an angel, complete with wings.
DeMarco is the founder and main volunteer pilot for Wings Flights of Hope, a local charity that transports people on free medical or compassionate missions all over the northeast. One of his clients is Day, a Town of Tonawanda police officer who has been waiting for a heart transplant for almost two years and who would not be living at home with his wife, Sherry Brinser-Day, and their three children if not for DeMarco and his organization.
“They have saved us,” Brinser-Day said.
DeMarco has been flying Day to appointments since August – when Day was accepted for transplant at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston – and stands ready to fly 47-year-old Day to Boston when he gets the word that a matching heart has been found. A transplant patient has four hours to get to the hospital when an organ is found; commercial flights would not work, and driving to Boston would take the Days more than six hours.
If not for Wings, “I would have to relocate to Boston to make it there within the time frame when an organ becomes available,” said Day, who lived at Strong Memorial Hospital for more than four months last year waiting for a transplant that never came. “After spending four months away from home last year, that would be very hard, psychologically and emotionally, for me.”
DeMarco, who got hooked on flying medical missions when he volunteered for Angel Flight Northeast out of Boston, founded Wings in 2004. The organization also depends on his wife, Diane, who “does all the mission coordination,” he said. “She says she does all the work and I have all the fun and fly every day.” Their son, Joe DeMarco Jr., is also a volunteer pilot.
The local Wings group has 15 volunteer pilots, but DeMarco does most of the flying, completing 374 of last year’s 500 trips for the organization.
DeMarco, a former construction company owner who won a prestigious national Endeavor Award for public benefit aviation in Los Angeles in May, said his reason for devoting his life to Wings – and for completing 1,165 flights in 10 years – is simple.
“I started seeing people who wanted just the normal things in life that you take for granted, to breathe and walk, and swallow, and Tim needs a heart, other people are just trying to survive cancer,” he said. “It’s just changed my life. I don’t even work anymore, I’m a full-time volunteer.”
Besides flights to get medical care, which are done without regard to the patient’s financial status, Wings also carries out compassionate flights, rushing loved ones to the bedsides of dying or seriously injured people.
Transplant cases are the most urgent, with the strictest time limits, DeMarco said.
“The doctors are not going to allow people to even try to drive or take a commercial flight” if the hospital is beyond a few hours away, he said. “If you need to get there, we can do that.”
“Joe’s impact goes beyond the basic services of Wings,” said Brinser-Day. “Not only has he given us the ability to make it to Boston for Tim’s transplant, he has kept a normalcy in our lives that we wouldn’t have been able to maintain. Beyond that, his passion and experience with all the people that he is serving has also given us a lot of reassurance.”
Day’s story has taken many twists and turns since 2013, when he spent 128 days in Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. During that stay, doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device next to his weak heart, powered by batteries and controlled by a computer he wears at his waist.
Complications followed. His first LVAD clotted, and after it was replaced, Day suffered from several ailments, including the flu, an asthma attack, infections and a hemorrhagic stroke possibly caused by the blood thinners he must take.
After the LVAD was implanted, Strong Memorial moved Day down on the transplant list, and in early February 2014, the Days contacted the Cleveland Clinic to see if he might have better luck there. Days after the Cleveland Clinic rejected him because he was still on a transplant list at Strong Memorial, his doctor at Strong Memorial called to say he was no longer a candidate for a transplant there.
“His case was just too complicated,” said Brinser-Day.
The Days were devastated.
But throughout the ordeal, Brinser-Day had been in touch with a lifelong friend, Julie Baker, whose husband, Joshua Goldberg, was working in the cardiac unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“He had been following our case and had always told us that we should consider a bigger facility with more research,” said Brinser-Day.
After they were cut from the Strong Memorial program, Goldberg told the Days to contact Massachusetts General.
“He said, ‘I really encourage you to try again,’ ” Brinser-Day said. “We were so down. He gave us hope,” even pointing out that Mass General had performed a transplant on a patient whose heart was damaged by hypereosinophilic syndrome, the rare illness that ravaged Tim Day’s heart in October 2012. At the same time, Goldberg was speaking with people in the hospital about the Days. While he didn’t influence the hospital’s decision, “He got it streamlined for us,” Brinser-Day said. “They knew we would be calling and they knew who we were. Mass General is very open to taking anyone who needs help, anyone who comes to them.”
On March 17, the Days were overjoyed to get a call from Massachusetts General inviting them to come out for a conference.
For their first visit, the Days made the 6ø-hour drive to the house of Tim’s sister outside Boston. At the hospital, they met with a surgeon, who said he would do the transplant, but he needed the approval of a hospital committee.
Day said, “On the drive home we were drained, but we had hope.”
“On June 13, four months after Strong kicked me off their list, the head of the cardiology department called me and said we will transplant you, and we have given you a 1A exemption so you can stay home,” Day said.
“Our main concern was the logistics of getting back and forth,” said Brinser-Day.
Enter Wings Flights of Hope.
The Days took their first two-hour flight to Boston with Wings the first weekend in August.
At the end of August, Day developed a fever, and his doctors at Mass General wanted to see him right away. While they prepared to drive, Brinser-Day called Wings. “The worst that could happen is that they would say no,” Day said. Instead, Wings said a pilot could take them to Boston if they could be at Niagara Falls International Airport in an hour. Day said, “We can be there in 20 minutes.”
So far, including a daylong followup visit to Mass General last Friday, Tim Day has taken six trips with Wings. Now it’s a waiting game for two families: Both the Days and the DeMarcos are hoping the phone will ring with news that a heart is available for Tim Day.
DeMarco said, “We have never not completed a transplant mission, I swear it’s a miracle how it works out, it’s divine intervention. We are always able to get them done. People always want to know if we can guarantee it, I say nobody can guarantee anything, but we have a great track record. I have flown at least 40 or 50 transplants myself.”
He hopes that he can add to that total soon with Day.
After his visit to Massachusetts General last Friday, Day said everything had gone as well as could be expected.
“They want to see me back in a month,” he said. “Unless I get a call sooner.”