Life-changing assistance: Champaign woman's idea more than 30 years ago has led to 7,200-plus flights to help those in medical need
CHAMPAIGN — Three decades ago, Brian McGill was in bad shape and needed to fly to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
LifeLine Pilots was a fledgeling operation back then, and McGill was 24, suffering from Behcet's Disease, which causes sores all over the body and can lead to meningitis, blood clots and blindness.
Cole Hospital still existed then, in a mansion that was recently torn down at Church Street and Prospect Avenue. After treating him for weeks in 1981, doctors there said McGill needed to be flown to Mayo.
Wanda Whitsitt, who founded LifeLine, found the plane for him.
"It's a wonderful, wonderful thing she does," said McGill, who is in remission.
There was no doubt in the local doctors' minds that Mayo had resources that Cole Hospital didn't.
"Mayo put me through the mill. I had every test done that could be done," McGill said. "I had my bone marrow test right here at Cole, and that was truly painful."
LifeLine made that treatment, however painful, possible.
"My idea was to help people out with free flights, in time of emergencies or financial aid," said Whitsitt, who recently was honored by AARP for her 30-plus years of service.
Treatment with steroids got McGill's sores under control but caused some eye problems. In the years since, he hasn't had the flare-ups that others with the disease have every few months, something confirmed with his wife, a nurse.
McGill's now healthy enough lately to run a golf benefit for his nephew, Olympian Tyler McGill.
"I fish, I golf, I can do anything a guy my age can do," McGill said.
The Whitsitts were no youngsters themselves when they first took to flight.
Wanda and her husband Don, whom she married in 1953, took flight lessons together, though Don dropped out for a while.
Wanda earned her private pilot license at 48, and taught aviation ground school from 1980 to '83 at Frasca Field in Urbana.
She used her education and connections to draw other volunteers in. The private pilots are generous with time and money; they absorb all the expenses for the more than 7,200 LifeLine flights so far.
For 23 of those years, Whitsitt owned a Piper Archer nicknamed Sweet Charley, and, in early years, with a handful of pilots made sometimes hair-raising trips in various tiny airplanes.
Richard T. Borovec, a LifeLine board member who lives down the street from Whitsitt, said the group that she founded now has about 500 pilots and serves all or parts of 16 states.
The group flew people and supplies to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Whitsitt said that in 2001, when all flights were canceled, LifeLine was an exception, flying skin tissue to burn victims from Sept. 11.
"LifeLine has probably given me the most satisfaction in flying in my life," said Borovec, who has been associated with the group since 1985. "You see the results instantly when you're helping the person sitting next to you.
"And it's useful to realize that one little piece of DNA or a germ was the difference in which seat I sat in."
The clients must be ambulatory and able to get in and out of a small plane if they are adults, he said.
For her accomplishments, which include many air race trophies, Whitsitt was long ago inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame and was honored by the National Aeronautic Association at the Capitol Building in Washington.
She said not all her flights have had your standard passenger: LifeLine transports organs, and one of her first flights was carrying medical evidence from a murder.
She told of LifeLine taking a 60-something couple who flew over Lake Michigan on their way to Mayo Clinic.
The couple watched the sunset over the lake, and then landed in the man's hometown, where everybody in town came out to greet him, she remembered in a News-Gazette story from 2007.
Scheduling flights had no time extensions; it was do it or don't.
"She used to do this out of our house, sometimes at 2 a.m.," Don Whitsitt said.
LifeLine is now headquartered at Beverly Terminal in Peoria. Its executive director, Karen Halverson, said Whitsitt remains a valuable member of the organization even without flying.
"Wanda is a wonderful resource. She works hard for the organization she started. She still goes out and talks LifeLine up, and looks for money and pilots," Halverson said, noting that the AARP award money went to the organization.