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Willmar hospice patient gets one last wish to take to the sky

Allen Erickson, 84, waits for the plane to taxi onto the runway. "Flew like a bird," Erickson said an hour later when his flight concluded. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

Allen Erickson wore an enormous smile as the small plane landed Monday morning at the Willmar Municipal Airport.

"We made it!" he exclaimed from the cockpit to family and friends waiting on the tarmac.

"Flew like a bird!" Erickson, 84, exulted as paramedics with the Willmar Ambulance Service carefully helped him over the wing of the little red and white Piper Comanche and onto the ground.

Erickson, who has an incurable brain tumor, has been a Rice Hospice patient for more than a year. One of the former pilot's last wishes: to soar among the clouds in a final airplane flight.

He got his wish Monday, with the help of the Willmar Ambulance Service and its Sentimental Journey program.

"This was a dream come true for him," said his wife, Betty.

Brad Swenson, a critical care paramedic with the Willmar Ambulance Service, helped launch Sentimental Journey a year ago, modeled after a program that began in Colorado. Swenson now directs the local program in coordination with Rice Hospice.

As people approach the end of life, there's often one final thing they'd like to do -- go fishing, for instance, or attend a family party or visit a favorite place, Swenson said.

Sometimes, however, they're too sick to carry out their wish without extra help. That's where the ambulance crew comes in, working with hospice staff to help organize the trip, transport the person by ambulance and provide the backup medical care.

"They can't do it by themselves," Swenson said. "We do it because it's their last wish. It gives them a chance to do one last thing. For us, this gives something back to the community."

In the year since the program began, ambulance and hospice staff have facilitated half a dozen of these sentimental journeys. None have been quite as complicated, however, as what it took to line up Erickson's airplane ride.

Erickson hadn't been behind the controls of an aircraft for 20 or 30 years but he had a pilot's license for many years and used to co-own a small plane, said his son, Mike Erickson. "Dad really loved flying," he said.

During a recent visit with Rice Hospice social worker Judie Dunlop, Erickson expressed a wish to go up in a plane one more time.

Dunlop and Swenson weren't sure they could fulfill his wish but they started asking around, trying to find a pilot who would be willing to help. Swenson tapped into some personal connections and eventually enlisted Brad Louwagie, a Marshall pilot with his own plane.

Louwagie and his plane were waiting Monday morning as the ambulance arrived at the Willmar airport with Erickson on board. With a paramedic in the back seat, Erickson in front and Louwagie at the controls, the small plane lifted off into a cloudy sky.

They flew north to St. Cloud, then east over Litchfield. For a time, Louwagie even turned over the controls to Erickson so that he could fly the aircraft himself. The ride lasted for more than an hour before the plane finally touched down again at the Willmar airport.

"Never did I think this would ever happen. It was meant to be, for whatever reason," Dunlop said.

For someone who takes a sentimental journey, it's often a way of letting go, Swenson said. "My goal is that they'll have closure. Closure is very important," he said.

"It's very fulfilling," Dunlop said. "It lifts them. It gives them some hope that even at the end of their lives, they can enjoy some simple things. The simple things are the most important, really."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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