Saturday, January 16, 2021

Steve Wright: A devoted husband. A volunteer medical pilot. A life lost to COVID.

Angel Flight volunteer pilot Stephen Wright with his beloved Piper Malibu Mirage.

Steve Wright realized his mistake only after the pretty girl gave him the look that pretty girls give to jerks who try extraordinarily stupid lines.

It was 1968, and in their class at the University of Michigan, their very German professor still called students “Mr.” or “Miss.” Without thinking, Wright had followed suit.

“Hello,” the pretty girl thought he’d said. “I’m Mr. Right.”

He scrambled to clarify. “Wright,” he said. “With a W. Like the Wright brothers.”

Her name was Jan Kovar. A computer science major, she’d grown up blue-collar, in Dearborn, Michigan, and itched to travel, to see more of life had to offer. On their second date, Steve took her to the airport where he’d learned to fly. In the noisy little plane, looking down from the co-pilot’s seat, the world unrolled itself beneath them.

He was, it turned out, Mr. Right after all.

On their honeymoon, Steve flew them around the continental U.S. After her graduation, Jan worked as a systems analyst, and later for banks. Steve became a patent lawyer for Dow Chemical — first in Michigan, then in the Houston area because Jan wanted to live somewhere warm. He bought a single-engine Cessna 210. On their trips, Jan co-piloted.

The kids came — Alec, then Cathy, then Brad. Steve left Dow for corporate law. On family vacations, he’d land the Cessna at remote little airports near national parks, like the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Or in Arkansas. Or the Gulf Coast.

The kids were in their teens when Jan’s health problems began.

In May 2001, after a series of close calls, she received a liver transplant at Memorial Hermann Hospital. But after a respiratory complication, she slipped into a coma.

She was still in that coma June 9, when Tropical Storm Allison flooded the Texas Medical Center. Memorial Hermann lost power just before sunrise. Nurses respirated Jan by hand.

Steve rushed to the hospital, and in the dark, fumbled his way up to the ninth-floor ICU. The nurses gave him a crash course in manual respiration, and he began helping patients on Jan’s floor.

Still without power, the hospital began to evacuate. It was risky to move Jan, but by mid-morning it seemed even riskier to leave her. Steve helped the hospital staff carry her bed down the nine flights of stairs. One nurse kept up Jan’s mechanical breathing; another carried the IV pole. At last they made it to the loading dock. From there a Coast Guard helicopter carried Jan to a hospital in Katy.

Doctors told Steve that Jan had a 50 percent chance of surviving.

Bucket list

She not only survived, she woke up. Though her health problems never cleared up — in 2008, she was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a bone marrow cancer — she and Steve continued to travel.

He had already traded in the little Cessna for a bigger Piper Malibu Mirage. But Jan, fragile, couldn’t withstand long trips with no bathroom stops. To extend their range, he upgraded the Piper. With turbo engines, it could fly higher, faster.

They checked off items on their bucket list. They visited all seven continents, all 50 states, all the friends on their Christmas card list. To celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, in 2011, they traveled around the world. In Antarctica, they saw penguins.

In the Piper they loved “chasing sunsets,” flying west as late afternoon turned to dusk, making the sunset last and last before the world turned dark.

In 2015, Jan died.

‘My purpose’

“I think I’ve found my purpose,” Steve told his daughter, Cathy Flores, sometime in one of those long empty months after Jan’s death. His best friend, Glenn Korfhage, had introduced him to Angel Flight, a nonprofit that organizes volunteer pilots to fly people, for free, to and from medical treatment.

It felt like a calling. Cancer patients needed what Steve could give: his skills, the use of his fast plane. Often the patients were traveling to or from MD Anderson, the hospital that had treated Jan.

Shireen Pitassi, Angel Flight’s mission director, works with more than 1,200 volunteers. Steve, she says, “was one of my favorites.” She’d call when she suddenly needed, say, someone to fly a Friday mission. Almost always, he’d clear his calendar.

He flew 47 missions. If the patient’s ride home wasn’t waiting at the airport, he would sometimes borrow a car. Once, when bad weather grounded the Piper, Steve bought the patient a ticket home on a big commercial flight. “He was special,” says Pitassi.

Sometimes Cathy flew with her dad, sitting in back with the patient and the patient’s helper. Cathy and Steve told the patients the things they’d learned from their time with Jan: Not to give up, that amazing comebacks are possible, as long as you’re still in this beautiful world.

The last mission

Steve was 72 last spring, when COVID-19 began shutting down the U. S. He was in great shape, still able to pass the rigorous annual flight physical. He used to tell Cathy that he figured he had 15 years left to live, and maybe five more before some medical issue slowed him down.

At first he chafed when she urged him to stay home, to take coronavirus precautions. He didn’t want to lose any of the time he had left. But naturally, when hospitals stopped accepting non-emergency patients, Angel Flight’s missions stopped too. Steve’s last one, Pitassi’s records say, was on March 8, 2020.

In the months that followed, Steve kept his skills sharp, kept flying the Piper, kept renewing his certifications. He took COVID-19 precautions, wearing his mask, keeping his distance. When he could resume Angel Flights missions, he wanted to be ready.

But somehow, he caught COVID-19. He was sick for only a couple of weeks. He told Cathy on December 23 that he needed an ambulance to take him to the hospital: His pulse oximeter, the one he wore to track his blood oxygen at high altitudes, showed that he was in the danger zone.

He died January 4.

This year, Cathy said Thursday, after her dad’s funeral, would have been her parents’ 50th anniversary. She liked thinking of them together now, in heaven. In a place high above the clouds. Where sunsets never give way to the dark.