Drones take hospice patients on one last memorable trip
Drones take hospice patients on one last memorable trip
MENTOR, Ohio -- When Jim and Suzanne Plescia traveled to Italy with a group of friends in 2009, it was a bucket list trip back when the bucket seemed bottomless and the list was still growing with possibilities.
Just a few years later, after they’d told the stories a thousand times and showed off the handsome book of pictures they’d made, Jim began to lose his balance and missed steps when he walked, sometimes picking himself up off the floor. They blamed it on poor eyesight and klutziness.
Eventually, Jim visited the doctor about his balance and vision issues. A neurologist delivered a shocking diagnosis:Jim had a rare disease known as progressive supranuclear palsy, a brain disorder that affects balance, speech, vision, swallowing, mood, behavior and thinking.
As the name suggests, it gets progressively worse. The Plescia’s moved from home where they raised their family in Mentor to a single-level home on a cul-de-sac . Three years ago, he walked the grounds of the development every day. Then he needed a cane, which gave way to a walker. And when he fell sideways onto the neighbor’s grass earlier this year, the walks were over.
Jim, a former Motorola salesman, is in a wheelchair now. There is no cure for his disease. Suzanne, a retired elementary school teacher, makes him comfortable at home with the help of nurses from Hospice of the Western Reserve.
It would be reasonable to presume a return to Italy -- specifically the village of Godrano near Palermo in Sicily where Jim traces his roots and where the memories of their visit are still fresh -- could never happen.
But early this month, thanks to the magic of technology and the skill of an Italian drone pilot, the Plescia’s were back in the Sicilian sun, zooming past the tightly packed multi-level houses, taking in the breathtaking mountain views, spying a child romping across a high-grass field.
“Oooh, Jim, just like your dad used to do!” Suzanne said.
“Yyyyeah!,” Jim responded. He can speak, but with great difficulty. A “Yeah!” heavy on the “Y” is his usual reply.
The seven-minute “trip” was arranged through Hospice of the Western Reserve, which coordinated with a Cleveland nonprofit called the Flight to Remember Foundation, formed for the purpose of taking hospice patients to places they can no longer go.
A “trip” to Cedar Point
Weeks before, Jim and Suzanne and their daughter Emily McClure enjoyed another drone video focused on the area around Cedar Point, where they took many family vacations. The drone couldn’t actually fly through the park, but the Cedar Point fudge that was delivered with the DVD brought them back anyway.
Tom Davis of Avon, a sales solution engineer manager for Hyland Software, loves to fly drones so much, he started a company, Aerial Anthropology, to shoot video for contractors and real estate developers. In 2015, he started the Flight to Remember Foundation. The organization partners with Hospice to give dying people a chance to revisit the homeland, tour a favorite vacation spot, return to the site of a wedding or a marriage proposal.
For Jim and Suzanne, it was a return to a happier, healthier time.
With old neighbors and Hospice folks in attendance the wine flowed and Italian dinner donated by Mama Roberto’s in Mentor sat warm on the kitchen counter while Suzanne fired up the DVD player. Godrano came into view on the wall-mounted flat screen.
A surprise excursion
“Every trip, Fr. Mike (Ausperk, of Holy Family Church in Stow, a friend since his early days at their church, St. Bede the Venerable in Mentor) plans a surprise, usually for his mother. But this time, the surprise was, he was going to drive us all to Godrano, we were going to find the village where Jim’s dad was born. Here we are, nine Americans driving in this huge white van down the middle of the road through Godrano and people are looking outside their windows, you could see the curtains move, like who is this?”
None of the Americans spoke Italian, but when they said ‘Plescia,’ the mayor led them to a woman’s home and knocked on the door.
“She showed us pictures and when Jim saw a picture of his Aunt Anna from New York, we knew we were in the right place,” Suzanne explained. “And then we saw a picture of ourselves at our wedding with Jim’s dad (Joseph). And we knew they were family. They wanted us all to call the hotel and cancel the reservation and stay with them.”
“Yeah!” Jim concurred, his face beaming.
“I can’t believe you did this,” she said to Lori Scotese and Jeff Stanicki, the Hospice administrators who delivered the video. Stanicki grew up across the street from the Plescia’s in Euclid, so he was there as a friend, too.
“I thought I’ll throw it out there. I had no idea you could do it. I thought, ‘I don’t think they can fly a drone all the way over the ocean!’ said Suzanne. “This is just wonderful. I could watch this over and over and over again.”
She hit play for a third time.
“Yeah!” Jim replied!
An idea takes flight
Davis said he got the idea for Flight to Remember when he heard of a sick student who couldn’t make a class field trip. Why not fly a drone there and they can make a virtual trip? He got the idea to partner with Hospice, formed his own nonprofit, and the idea took off. He partners with nonprofit hospice organizations across the country. He’s trying to raise funds to provide even more experiences. There are 50-plus drone pilots ready volunteer their time, and he has partnered with an organization called DroneBase, a kind of Uber of drones, where pilots waive their fee for these missions.
Davis has every state covered and a number of countries. There have been flights in Scotland and Italy and one in the works in Greece. In Ohio and and Wyoming and, closer to home, Lakeside near Marblehead.
That’s where Judy Reinke, a special education teacher from Elyria, loved to travel with her husband, Dan, a retired United Methodist minister. She’d actually been visiting the campground and shoreline there since her childhood.
“Two years ago, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We were blessed to have the two years, she made two more trips to Lakeside. Last year, when we closed up the camper in the fall, she was resting quite a bit and on way home, she said, ’You know, I don’t know if I’ll make it back up here,” Dan Reinke said.
She did, in April, thanks to Flights to Remember. Although in this case it was also a walk to remember. The Reinke’s daughter, Julie Wilmer, also is a teacher and has Davis’s son in her class. She accompanied Davis on a trip to Lakeside and he used a handheld camera as well as a drone to make sure they got all the sites Judy would love.
“She was in her hospital bed and we had the TV on the side. She wanted to be propped up so she could watch it, and she did, and she just smiled,” he said. She died weeks later.
“It is a time where there’s not a lot of positive going on, and they get this entire thing that helps with that whole process,” said Davis, who uploads videos of the drone flights for patients and families and add requested songs to the soundtrack. They can watch it as often as they like. “This is something if you have somebody stuck in a room, we could virtually get them out of there.”
Even out on the open road.
“This guy really wanted one last motorcycle trip, so I strapped the camera on the motorcycle and and went for a 25 minute ride,” he said.
Providing memorable experience to the dying
Lisa Scotese Gallagher, who heads up experiences and volunteer programs for Hospice, said Flight to Remember fit in nicely with existing programs “Experience to Remember” and “Meal to Remember.” And it was a way to further incorporate technology, which now also includes visits by those in hospice from family members far away via Skype on a big-screen TV.
“They can just be with their loved one and the staff is trained to acknowledge the person as if they’re in the room,” she said.
The flights add a special experience.
“They can watch it over and over and over. It brings them comfort and peace,” she said. “It’s another non pharmacological intervention. They can watch that video and it brings them back to the place where they weren’t having these challenges.”
Back in Mentor, Suzanne and Jim were ready to be brought back to Godrano one more time. Dinner would wait as Suzanne rubbed Jim’s shoulders and asked, “Can we play it one more time?”