Charity medical transport helps Utahns in need
Nonprofit will pick up the tab for Provo teen's travel to renowned Iowa facial nerve clinic.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A smile is as much a reflex as breathing for most people, but Natalie Wright can only think about the possibility and dream.

Natalie's quick smile is lopsided. A cancerous brain tumor pushes on a nerve cluster so Natalie cannot move the left side of her face, see out her left eye or hear out her left ear.

"I just want people to see on the outside how I feel on the inside," the 15-year-old said. "I'm happy on the inside."

With the help of doctors and a string of luck, she might have her wish soon. FlyerSmiles, a company that collects and distributes donated frequent-flier miles, will foot her family's airfare to Provo native Douglas Henstrom's Facial Nerve Center at the University of Iowa on April 16.

The Wrights are one of six families FlyerSmiles has helped since the company's September 2012 birth. The group is ramping up its operation with Smile of the Month, an online submission process similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation's. As FlyerSmiles grows its service, another nonprofit hopes more people take advantage of its free service. The Utah branch of the national organization AngelFlight is a network of pilots that flies people for free to medical appointments across the West. Organizers say the service is underused.

Both agencies want to help families such as the Wrights.

For Natalie and her family, the surgery to regain facial movement is the latest step in a long journey of hardships overcome and generosities received.

Silver linings • Doctors found Natalie's tumor when she was 2. After two surgeries, the tumor took her ability to swallow and she was put on a feeding tube, with doctors saying she would never swallow again.

"Not everyone realizes how cancer affects the whole family in addition to the person who has it," Dana Wright, Natalie's mother, said. "When someone has a feeding tube, there's a whole world of work that goes into upkeep. We couldn't afford a night nurse, so we were literally working 24/7."

In a wave of good intent, the Wrights' neighbors introduced the family to generosity that seems now to follow them like a guardian angel. Neighbors took two-hour shifts watching Natalie when she had her feeding tube, which she was able to remove at the age of 7. Over the years, Natalie and her family have gotten help from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which sent them to Disneyland when it was unclear how long Natalie would live, and the Children's Miracle Network, who flew her to Washington, D.C.

The connection to the Harvard-trained surgeon was a stroke of luck. His wife's uncle lived across the street from the Wright family and connected the surgeon with Natalie after hearing the Wrights' plan to go to a less-experience, local surgeon. Henstrom, who has done more than 100 smile surgeries, even went to Natalie's school, Timpview High.

Like stumbling across Henstrom, the Wrights' discovery of FlyerSmiles was serendipitous. The founder of the charity, Tim Gibson, knew John Wright, Natalie's father, and suggested Natalie submit her story for the first-ever online request for FlyerSmiles.

"Helping a girl to literally smile was too perfect to pass up," Gibson said.

Charity transport • FlyerSmiles is partnered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, whose promotion in April is to have businesses donate their frequent-flier miles for needy families' redemption. Angel Flight takes the transport concept even further, providing direct flights in small passenger planes between airports.

"We operate entirely on volunteered time and money of volunteer pilots," said Steve Bollinger, the Utah wing leader for Angel Flight West. "Pilots donate their time and pay the fuel for the transport themselves. We love to fly, and people need medical transport. It's the best thing ever."

The Angel Flight West section of the national company covers the western United States. In 2011, the Utah branch of more than 50 pilots made more than 100 flights for cancer patients, transplants and even family members who had no means to get to their loved ones. According to Bollinger, 100 flights only brush the potential of the organization.

"Doctors and hospital staff don't take us up on our flights sometimes, don't spread the word," the pilot said. "They're skeptical. They don't believe us when we say there's no catch. It's just too good to be true for a lot of people."

Too good to be true is a sentiment not lost on the Wright family.

"You hear so much about bad things," Dana Wright said, "but not enough about things like this. We've been so, so blessed with generosity and fortune. All to help a girl get her smile."

djsummers@sltrib.com Twitter: @djsummersmma Flyer Smiles - CEO Timothy Gibson - tim@flyersmiles.comAngel Flight West - Utah Wing Leader Steven Bollinger - steveb@tvspec.comNatalie Wright - http://nataliewright.ning.com/