Help and Hope Take Flight for Burn Survivors

By: Erin Flynn
AirLifeLine Outreach Volunteer

Being a teenager, starting high school, and going through all of the usual physical changes of adolescence is difficult enough. Needing specialized medical treatment which requires traveling long distances is an extra burden about which most teenagers don't have to worry.

Sixteen-year-old Esmeralda Pineda, a burn survivor from Paso Robles, California has endured 12 years of difficult surgeries and rehabilitation. She must travel nearly 600 miles round-trip to the Shriners Hospital in Sacramento several times a year for surgeries and ongoing follow-up care.

When Esmeralda was four she and her sister Patty in foster care, thus getting to their treatment at the Shiners Hospital or going to a fun outing can be difficult. One reprieve for her and her sister this year was Firefighters Kids Camp, which is run by the Firefighters Pacific Burn Institute.

Fortunately, Esmeralda and Patty discovered a volunteer pilot organization called AirLifeLine. The organization's volunteer pilots will fly them to treatment at Shriners Hospital or to an exciting destination like Firefighters Kids Camp totally free of charge, for as often as necessary and as long as needed.


AirLifeLine volunteer pilot Saul Chaikin of Cupertino, California flew Esmeralda and Patty from Paso Robles to the camp in Lake Tahoe in August of 2002. It was Saul's first mission with AirLifeLine, but it certainly will not be his last. He said he enjoyed flying with the girls and enjoyed teaching the very curious Esmeralda about all the aircraft's flight instruments.

"The teenagers go on outings and participate in challenges," said Esmeralda. "We have fun and just chill."

According to Monica Saldana, a representative from the Firefighters Pacific Burn Institute, the camp is staffed primarily by firefighters, along with burn care specialists and adult burn survivors. The camp is a place where children and teenagers with severe burn injuries can meet with others who have had similar experiences, but the staff makes sure it is really just a typical summer camp. The kids participate in activities such as rafting, boating, fishing and crafts.

"A lot of the kids are timid and shy when they first get there because of their scars, but by the end of the week there out there in their bathing suits." Saldana said. "They're open and not so focused on outward appearances."

Thanks to compassionate and generous volunteer pilots like Saul, Esmeralda and Patty were able to have these great experiences at camp and reach the ongoing treatment they need. Saul began flying in the early 1970's because he found it was a challenge and an exciting way to cover great distances in a short amount of time. He purchased his own plane in 1980 and has now found flying can be even more enjoyable when volunteering for AirLifeLine. Saul only recently joined AirLifeLine after reading about volunteer pilot opportunities on the organization's website. "I like to do the volunteer flying. It puts my skills and equipment to good use," he said. "It is a very positive experience." AirLifeLine is the oldest and largest national volunteer pilot organization in the United States. The organization exists because pilots like Saul want to fly for enjoyment and help others at the same time. The pilots donate, not only their skills, but also all the costs of the flight.

AirLifeLine has been matching pilots with patients in need since 1978. Just last year, AirLifeLine volunteer pilots transported over 8,500 passengers to over 400 destinations, saving the passengers an estimated $4 million dollars annually.

Over 40% of the organization's flights support children, thus making sure they get the medical care they need and ensuring that they are able to experience things other children enjoy like summer camp. Without Saul and other pilots like him, Esmeralda and Patty may not have been able to enjoy Firefighters Kids Camp.

"AirLifeLine is really important and I thank them," Esmeralda said.