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Southwest Airlines Makes Medical Transportation Well Worth Trip

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Without surgery, a three-year-old Chinese orphan would not have been able to release his right elbow, bend his arm to feed himself, or scratch his cheek when it itched.
Without benefit of the Southwest Airlines Medical Transportation Grant Program, Toby Shaw might not be able to travel from his home in Ohio where he lives with his adoptive American parents to Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia for the specialized care he needs to combat arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints in his arms and wrists.

Southwest Airlines has been making travel one less burden for patients like Toby by providing more than $2.8 million in free medical flights through its grants program.

Another 73 nonprofit hospitals and medical organizations from across the nation were selected this year for the program, which provides participating healthcare providers with access to complimentary, roundtrip airline tickets that can be forwarded to families who are facing serious illness and need to travel for specialized medical care.

Priceless Perk

Discount fares, free checked-in luggage, and on-board snacks may not be high on the wish-lists of patients who need specialized care at a hospital that is thousands of miles from home. But, free airfare to receive the best medical treatment available can certainly ease the financial burden on associated families, giving those who are already facing so much one less thing to worry about.

“Partnering with these hospitals and organizations to provide hope for those dealing with serious illness is an honor for us,” said Linda Rutherford, Southwest Airlines vice president of communication and outreach. “It’s touched our hearts to be able to connect our flights with the hospitals’ care, and see the amazing difference this unique program is making to families in our communities.”

Since the Southwest Airlines Medical Transportation Grant Program’s inception seven years ago, more than 33,000 tickets, totaling $13.2 million in free transportation, have been distributed to organizations in 26 states, making a positive difference in the lives of more than 26,000 patients.

Spirits Elevated

Renée-Marie Stephano, President of the Medical Tourism Association, said more commercial airlines are empathizing in the plight of medical travelers and cooperating with healthcare facilities and medical tourism facilitators to simplify the travel process and cater to the needs of international patients with comfort, flexibility and affordability.

Thousands of patients are prevented from access to the care they need for either physical impediments involving transportation infrastructure or for the most obvious barriers high costs for travel, she said. Programs like this one at Southwest set an example for other transportation entities to follow while filling in the immediate gaps that separate patients from access to the care they need and deserve anywhere in the world.

One new community that will benefit from the 2014 Southwest Airlines Medical Transportation Grant Program is San Diego, with first-time recipients Scripps Health and Rady Children’s Hospital joining other world-renowned hospitals, such as The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Shriners Hospitals for Children.

“I’m grateful our hospital is able to partner with Southwest Airlines to provide Toby and so many other patients like him the best treatment for their conditions,” said Dr. Dan Zlotolow, orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Hospital for Children. “Together, we are able to offer our patients a long-term treatment plan without worrying about the burden of travel costs.”

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