Five-year-old Atticus Mann has one wish: to be able to play outdoors with his brothers and classmates, something that most days is a challenge.
Nearly two years ago, Atticus began to experience weakness and fatigue and had difficulty breathing, speaking, and swallowing. Eventually, he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a chronic neuromuscular disease that typically affects adults over the age of 40. Playing, walking or even standing wouldn’t be possible without the intravenous immune globulin (IVIg) treatments he receives monthly to replenish the antibodies needed to fight infection.
“Sometimes he just doesn’t have the energy to go out and play with friends on the playground and it makes him sad,” says Brittney Mann, a stay-at-home mom to Atticus, Mattix, 3, and Merrick, 8. “He’ll come home from school and tell me ‘I had to stay inside today. I was too tired.’ I can tell that it affects him more than you think it would.”
To receive IVIg treatments, Atticus and his mother must travel to BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, a five-hour drive from his home in Kelowna, B.C. The thought of making that drive every month was a daunting one, prompting Mann to reach out to Hope Air, a charity that helps with the cost of travel for medical treatment.
“Access to good healthcare is something that people living close to great hospitals take for granted,” said Mark Rubinstein, CEO of Hope Air. He noted that there are about 8 million people living outside of Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, where all of the advanced specialty healthcare exists, many of whom struggle just to pay for shelter and food.
“Hope Air is the only national charity addressing this fundamental gap in Canada’s healthcare system,” he said.
Brittney and Chad Mann initially took their son to a local hospital in Kelowna where he underwent a battery of tests. From there, Atticus and his mom were flown by air ambulance to BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, where doctors made the diagnosis and prescribed a medication commonly used to treat myasthenia gravis. The drug worked well for several months, until it didn’t, Mann said. “He became so weak again. He was tripping and falling and could not hold himself up.”
After Atticus received IVIg, the results were immediate, Mann said. “Days after his first treatment, we took him to a party, and he was jumping on a trampoline and playing soccer with the other children.” But the relief is short-term, which means making the trek to Children’s Hospital regularly with Hope Air’s help.
Access to good healthcare is something that people living close to great hospitals take for granted.”
In renewing its commitment to help Hope Air support Canadians across the country with flights, accommodations, meals and ground transportation related to medical travel, Scotiabank pledged $300,000 over three years. The donation is being made through ScotiaRISE, the Bank’s 10-year, $500-million initiative to promote economic resilience among disadvantaged groups.
“We are proud to support Hope Air in its mission to help reduce stress for people dealing with life-threatening or life-altering illnesses by enabling them to access the healthcare they need regardless of where they live in Canada,” said Maria Saros, Scotiabank’s Vice President & Global Head, Social Impact.
While Hope Air receives an allocation of vouchers from air carrier partners and significant discounts from hotel and airline partners, Rubinstein said these represent only a small percentage of donations.
“Hope Air could not meet demand without the generosity of individuals and corporations like Scotiabank. We, and ultimately the people we help, are very grateful for that support,” he said.
Donations are even more critical as the medical system works its way through a backlog of appointments and treatments. In the first three months of 2023 alone, applications to Hope Air have jumped 100% from a year earlier.
“We need to ensure funding is robust and sustained so we never have to worry about ever having to say no to a mother, child or anyone in need of life-saving treatments,” Rubinstein said.
In 1986, Jinnie Bradshaw, a former Air Canada employee, and Joan Rogers, a volunteer at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, founded Mission Air Transportation Network (now Hope Air) to bridge the distance between home and hospital for Canadians in need. That year, less than 15 flights were arranged for patients needing medical care in cities far from home, with the first flight made between Moncton, N.B. and Toronto; in 2022, it facilitated more than 10,500 travel arrangements.
Mann was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did Hope Air provide her and Atticus with tickets for commercial flights, but also car service to and from the airport in Vancouver, a hotel room for up to five days, and meal vouchers throughout their stay. Having that financial strain lifted also leaves them with enough funds to pay for daycare for Merrick and Mattix, and lets Chad, a carpenter with a home builder and sole provider for the family, keep working.
Hope Air’s dedicated client care services, which takes all the stress of booking airlines and hotels, or rebooking when there are last minute appointment cancellations, off of those travelling for medical appointments, is also a big help.
“When you call or e-mail Hope Air, you’re going to be dealt with compassionately and empathetically on a timely basis,” Rubinstein noted.
While national and regional airlines account for about 90% of the flights each year, volunteer pilots, who handle the remaining 10%, are a vital part of Hope Air’s service. Flying on private, small aircraft is a lifeline for people who live in remote rural areas and need critical treatments and it allows for the most medically vulnerable — people who are either mobility- or immuno-compromised — to travel with less stress.
Last year, volunteer pilots across Canada made about 50 flights for Hope Air. Sylvio Roy made seven of those in his Piper Arrow, a four-seater single-engine aircraft that has a cruising speed of 140 knots. Whether he is flying from Kingston, Ont. (his home base) to Toronto, or to places further north in the province such as Sault St. Marie, Timmins or Kapuskasing, Roy said his plane cuts travel time to an appointment to roughly one-fourth of the time it takes to drive.
Photo: Sylvio Roy, a volunteer pilot with Hope Air
Roy has racked up a lot of flying hours since getting his pilot’s licence in 1981. He served 25 years with the Canadian Air Forces and another 15 flying for Air Canada. For the past 12 years, he has volunteered with Hope Air — flying patients but also doing fundraising through Hope Wing.
“We have universal healthcare in our country, but we don’t have universal access,” he said, explaining that people with health issues who live far from major urban centres must get to treatment on their own. “It’s something I can do to help with the skill I have,” he said.
“When they put the headset on and are able to talk with me and hear what’s going on, it usually puts a smile on their face. For a couple of hours, they don’t have to think about their illness.”
Meanwhile, Atticus is learning to skateboard and his mother is happy to see him go from not being able to hold himself up to balancing on a skateboard, which she said shows how much IVIg helps him.
His doctor has said he can go into remission, but there is no guarantee it will be for a long time. Mann just hopes Atticus can get to a point where he’s not constantly fatigued. “The IVIg treatments are his saving grace. So hopefully they continue to work, and he can get back to playing,” she said.
“If it wasn’t for Hope Air, I really don’t know how I would have gone this long or done any of it. Their help allows me to just concentrate on Atticus and getting him better.”
Watch now: Atticus & Brittney’s Journey