Tidewell patient George Downing went skydiving for the first time Wednesday with help from Tidewell Hospice and the Tidewell Foundation.

George Downing was shot down twice as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. The Army never taught him how to jump out of a flying object, so he rode those wounded helicopters to the ground. Luckily, he was never captured and walked away with minor injuries.

He finally learned to jump Wednesday, and he enjoyed a much smoother descent.

George, a 72-year-old Tidewell Hospice patient, jumped out of a “perfectly good airplane” at 13,000 feet, floating through a bright, blue sky on his first skydive before touching down gently on a landing strip at Shell Creek Park Airport in Punta Gorda.

“Any landing you can walk away from is a good one,” George said with a laugh.

George and Bill, his friend and neighbor who jumped, too, were all smiles after the exhilarating experience. It was made possible by the Tidewell Wishes Fund, a donor-supported fund of the Tidewell Foundation that covers the cost of patients’ final wishes. The Wishes Fund paid for the George’s tandem skydive with a member of the SW Florida Skydive Club and a photo/video package.

George said his tandem partner pointed out a “ring of fire,” a bright circle of sunlight inside a cloud, on the way down.

“The jump was great!” George said. “I didn’t really have any anticipation. I’m old, so how many times do you want to be disappointed? But this wasn’t one of them.”

George’s jump was originally set for March 15 but was scrapped by bad weather just minutes before takeoff. The delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed George’s son, Sean, to attend. He had previously scheduled a trip down from New Hampshire for this week. George’s wife, Sandra, and four friends from Cape Coral also attended to support George.

George, a Punta Gorda Isles resident, is a patient on the Port Charlotte-North Port Home Team. Soon after he was admitted to hospice, Tidewell RN Dawn Wheeler asked George if there was something he always wanted to do. His response? “I’ve always wanted to jump from a perfectly good airplane.”

Dawn said her supervisor doubted that skydiving would be approved because of liability concerns. But she submitted the request to George’s social worker, Mary Cruz-Malave, who passed it on to the Tidewell Foundation.

“He was already going to do it anyway. So we made it happen for him. He’s been talking about it for months,” Dawn said.

The Tidewell Wishes Fund fits in perfectly with the hospice philosophy of making the most of whatever time a patient has left.

“We don’t have the quantity, so we’re trying to focus on the quality,” Mary said. “This was something he really wanted to do. Why not? If it’s in our hands, it’s going to impact his quality of life. He’s happy. His whole family is happy. So we’re happy for him.”

George enrolled in Tidewell Hospice care in December after battling lung cancer for about nine months. He stopped chemotherapy treatments when it became clear they weren’t working.

“When he came to us, he was sick,” Dawn said. “He had mouth sores; he couldn’t eat. He was so thin. He stopped all the medications. We started him on steroids and the pain meds. He took himself off the pain meds. He got rid of his mouth sores, and now he’s eating four or five times a day.”

While his prognosis hasn’t changed, George is taking full advantage of feeling better, however long it lasts. He and Sandra went on a cruise, and he has been driving his boat.

“If not now, when?” George said. “I’ve never been afraid to die. Let’s face it; we’re born to die.”

To find out more about the Tidewell Wishes Fund, or to donate, visit TidewellFoundation.org.