LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — Imagine you’re a 36-year-old technical sergeant at the top of your game in aircraft maintenance. The year is 2000, and you’re at Kadena Air Base, Japan, taking care of business on F-15s. A competitive professional with high standards, you get things done. Whenever the need arises, you voluntarily work long hours in order to stay on top. Aside from being a little tight-wound, you are an athlete, volunteer coach and you feel that you are in top shape.
You awake one morning with a sore throat, so you decide to head off illness by going to sick call. The doctor sends you back to work with the usual cocktail of cold remedies, but the very next morning the pain is unusually high. You are also alarmed to find it’s increasingly difficult to breathe or swallow … something is wrong. Back to sick call, but this time the doctor orders imaging. You have no idea of the gravity these images would impose on your life.
A tumor grows along the inside of your jawbone, into your throat and obstructs your airway. With a diminishing ability to breathe, you’re immediately evacuated to the U.S. on a medically staffed priority flight. As you stare out the window of your aircraft, you contemplate this dark, new reality. Within 48 hours, a sore throat has become a matter of life and death. What is happening? The kind and attentive staff consists of no one you know personally, and you find yourself wishing it did. You are not ready to die.
This story belongs to one of Luke’s own, retired Senior Master Sgt. John Acosta. Known today as “Danny” among colleagues and customers, his service continues as Luke Air Force Base Bryant Fitness Center’s supervisory sports specialist.
“Once hospitalized at Tripler (Army Medical Center in Honolulu,) I had to wait on test results, which would determine whether or not it was cancerous,” Acosta said. “They were also considering surgical options. I was very nervous, but keeping it together.”
As is standard procedure, his mother and brother were notified and flown in. With his family at his side, he soon learned the tumor was noncancerous but the proposed 18-hour surgical removal would place him at a 50-percent risk of death. Subsequently, he was asked to place his legal affairs in order just in case.
The procedure was successful, but not without cost. It required removal and replacement of much of his jaw, and there was significant nerve damage to the affected region. His mouth was wired closed and his facial gesturing was compromised so that his only means of communicating was writing on a board they’d given him. With pressing obligations at home, the time came for his family’s departure. Acosta was left for several months to recover on his own. When speaking of his experience, he does so with warmth, his usual smile and a playful sense of humor.
“I was as ugly as you … well, almost,” he would tease.
But, when his family left, that’s when things became a little dark, he said.
“I couldn’t speak, and I had a lot to complain about,” Acosta said. “I was in pain, and there was this disfigured image in my mirror. The staff got after me about staying in my room too much. They wanted me to get up and walk around, but my head was swollen to the size of a basketball. It looked like a float in a Thanksgiving Day Parade. I didn’t like the way I looked, and I knew people would stare, so I couldn’t bring myself to leave the room.”
He was becoming lonely with such a long stay, but friends and coworkers sent letters from Japan, which raised his spirits each time he opened one. Eventually, he gave in to the staff’s encouragements and began walks around the hospital. Onlookers turned out to be nothing he couldn’t endure after all. Once they removed the bracing from his jaw, the long road to rehabilitation began. A combination of atrophy, stiffness and nerve damage meant that Acosta had to learn to speak again.
“When I went on those walks, I met people in much worse shape than me,” he said. “That put things into proper perspective. I knew there was an uphill battle ahead, but at least I had a battle, one I was determined to win. I was not going to die of cancer; I’d made it through surgery, and I had a family and friends who loved me. I still couldn’t speak but was beginning to figure it out.”
Acosta weighed 165 pounds his first day at sick call. Upon his return to Japan, he was a scant 130. The friends and coworkers who’d sent him letters were awaiting his return at the airport, but due to his change in stature and residual swelling they did not recognize him. He made a joke of it and walked anonymously by without saying anything, only to return to surprise them. Though he was in a good state of humor, his change in appearance brought tears to many eyes.
Now, 13 years later he says at the time he felt he needed to be strong for his friends and family.
“They were already upset about my condition, so why make it worse,” he said “Besides, I’ve spent most of my life on winning teams. Sports coaches and Air Force leaders from my past continue to steer me into a path of success, as I myself now try to steer others. I’m no less given to complaining than anyone else, but I think the desire to succeed is something that’s carried me away from it. The instant I awoke from surgery I knew I had to beat this. I remember being alone at one point and saying aloud, ‘I’m going to beat this.’”