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They are the unseen heroes behind organ transplants

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4 days ago Jenna Watson

EVANSVILLE, IN -- Todd Ratzlaff’s Sunday evening was winding down.

He had picked up his three children, ages 11, 14 and 15, from swim practice. They’d eaten dinner and were settling in at their Trafalgar home. It was 7 or 8 p.m.

That’s when his iPhone rang.

A few hours later, Ratzlaff was off to help save lives. He is a pilot for TxJet, a subsidiary of the Indiana Donor Network that transports life-saving organs to recipients in Indiana.

That Sunday in November, he and fellow pilot Roger Law needed to depart at 12:30 a.m. to pick up a heart and lung in Evansville. Ratzlaff rested for an hour before heading to the TxJet hangar at the Indianapolis International Airport, a more leisurely time frame than usual.

Indiana Donor Network’s pilots often receive calls just two hours ahead of departure, which gives Ratzlaff 15 minutes to get ready, 45 minutes to drive to Indy and an hour to prepare the Cessna CJ3 for flight.

When duty calls, he goes. Ratzlaff has abandoned a cart full of groceries, snuck out of a movie theater mid-film and left amidst many family gatherings since starting his job at TxJet in April.


“You get the phone call, no matter what you’re doing you just drop it and go to the airport. I have babysitters on standby. I have a change of clothes in a locker in here with the shower in case I’m mowing the lawn,” Ratzlaff said.

He said spontaneity keeps the so-called job interesting. To him, flying isn’t work, it’s just fun.

“There are people, I believe, that want to fly, and there are people that are born to fly. And I feel like I was born to fly. I just love it. There’s no better job,” Ratzlaff said.

He's always longed to be in the sky. Growing up, his father was a fighter pilot based in California.

He followed his father and grandfather into the military, accumulating 21 years of Air Force service through active duty and reserves. He’s flown cargo for Gemini Air, a corporate charter for Cummins and commercially for Republic Airlines.

He spent six years flight-less, working in intelligence and contracting for the military, overseas and at home.

“In the time that I was out of flying, I missed it every day. Still, at (age 50), every time a plane flies over here at the airport, I look up to see what it is,” Ratzlaff said with a grin.

“To be able to come to work and know that you are saving somebody’s life every time you fly is very rewarding,” he said.

He’s had practice. In Afghanistan, he and others prevented a convoy from running over an improvised explosive device. Without his counter-IED efforts, the members of that unit would be dead.

“That’s the most proud I’ve ever felt for a job, ever, and this is a pretty close second,” Ratzlaff said.

To an onlooker, the transport process appears ordinary. They operate with a healthy balance of urgency and composure — Ratzlaff describes it as a “well-practiced ballet.”

While the medical team procures organs, Ratzlaff and Law procure meals for the group, opting for local cuisine when possible.

“I’ve had the opportunity to have some incredible barbecue in Little Rock. I’ve had some fantastic steaks in Kansas. Not one trip has been the same, and to me, that’s fun,” Ratzlaff said, adding his daughter still begs him to make pulled pork with the jug of barbecue sauce he brought home.

A hearty meal for the surgeons might seem trivial, but it's those little conveniences that make TxJet invaluable. Indiana Donor Network is one of few organ procurement organizations that has its own jets. Most organ donor organizations rely on charter airlines.

Familiar pilots and aircraft that are available 24/7 boost communication and comfort for the medical teams, but more importantly, make for faster transport.

Sure enough, the Cessna CJ3 was ready on the runway at Evansville Regional when the medical team finally reappeared with a cooler labeled “Human Organ/Tissue for Transplant.”

On the quiet return flight to Indy, the surgeon and assistant scarfed down hash browns and omelets from IHOP. At half past 6 a.m., ambulance lights flicked on and the heart and lung moved into the distance, on the final stretch of the journey to two hopeful recipients at IU Health.

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