“Hearing the words, ‘your child has leukemia,’ has cut to a place I didn’t know existed in me,” said Staff Sgt. James Sykes, a recently graduated Sheppard NCO Academy student, when asked about having a daughter with cancer.
The past 15 months or so have been a whirlwind of emotions, doctors appointments, heartaches, and setbacks. It’s been one of perseverance, discovery and victories.
It’s also been an opportunity of self-reflection, that his bad days really aren’t that bad.
Jan. 28, 2021, was a normal evening in the Sykes family household at Luke AFB, Arizona. James, an F-35 integrated avionics craftsman, had come home to wife, Jessica, then eight months pregnant, and their two daughters, Aspen, 5, and Zoey, 2.
That’s the nightlife changed for Zoey and the Sykes Family.
What was supposed to be a typical night of dinner, playing with the kids and nighttime routines, Zoey developed a significant nosebleed, which turned into a long and challenging road for the Sykes. It also opened their eyes to the tremendous network of support from a caring Air Force family.
The Sykes Family
Zoey was taken to the doctor to be seen when it appeared this was something more than a nosebleed. The doctors sent the family home that night, dismissing the nosebleed as normal and provided instructions and some gauze to keep the blood clotted. That weekend, the nosebleeds persisted as both parents continued to monitor and help Zoey feel comfortable.
“On Monday, my wife called me at work and said she didn’t think Zoey was ok,” James said.
Their high-energy and full-of-life child was lethargic, she couldn’t walk, and her lips started to become a bluish tinge.
“Being that my wife is always around the kids, she is going to know better than me when something is wrong. I completely trusted her instincts on this,” he said.
And with that, they decided to call the primary care manager at the 56th Medical Group at Luke AFB, Ariz., where a full blood panel was ordered. James said the PCM told them it would be about an hour until results were in and to go home and wait for a call.
He didn’t make it home before his phone began ringing.
“I wasn’t even a mile off base before I received the call from the clinic that Zoey’s hemoglobin count was the lowest they’d ever seen and that our baby girl was at risk of heart failure,” James continued with tears welling up in his eyes. “I panicked. The range of possibilities that came from our provider’s mouth over the phone ñ I’ve never felt so panicked.”
He said with this new revelation of information, they were instructed to take her to the nearest pediatric emergency room.
Zoey was admitted to the hospital, where another blood panel was done to confirm her levels and to search for blast, immature white blood cells which can sometimes indicate an infection or in this case, leukemia.
On the same day as World Cancer Day, Feb. 4, 2021, Zoey was officially diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, an uncommon type of blood and bone marrow cancer that affects white blood cells.
“My emotions were everywhere,” James said. “All I wanted to do was trade places with her. What does this mean? Am I going to lose my daughter?”
After both James and Jessica had time to process the life-altering information they were just struck with, James called his squadron, the 61st Aircraft Maintenance Unit, to let them know he was uncertain when he would be back to work.
“You are exactly where you need to be,” he recalled Capt. Alessandra Sanchez-Largares, his officer-in-charge, said. “Take care of your family.”
The Sykes family grows
“We had just gotten to Luke when COVID hit,” said Jessica, who was already worried about staying healthy for her unborn third daughter.
Jessica explained it was nearly impossible to seek out many friendships because of the base’s Health Protection Condition posture during the hardest hitting time of the pandemic. She said the family felt very isolated, where under normal circumstances they would attend squadron events and let the kids meet new friends.
Little did the Sykes know that their family was about to expand beyond the birth of their newest addition, Layla, to hundreds of people who would come to rally around and support them during the hardest thing they’ve experienced in their lifetime.
After Zoey was diagnosed, Jessica said several of the wives from her husband’s squadron reached out via text and phone calls, some whom she’d never met, offering kind words and help if needed.
“I remember being in my car on the way to the hospital and listening to one of these messages,” she said. “I don’t even think that person realized how meaningful it was to me, not only just at that time when I really needed to hear it, but it was probably some of the kindest words I’ve ever received from someone ñ even to this day.”
What the message reminded Jessica to do was to take care of herself and to seek help if she needed it, and that they, her Air Force family, were there if they needed anything.
Chemotherapy started for Zoey on the first inpatient day at the hospital and continued until they were finally able to take her home after a stay of about three weeks. From removing James from his shifts, dealing with his leave paperwork, and all the other day-to-day tasks he’d normally have to deal with, his work family made sure he knew he was taken care of.
“There was one point where I actually tried to go back to work,” he said. “I was a few days in when the shirt pulled me into my OIC’s office. He said, ‘Are you ok? You look like you’re burning the candle at both ends and roasting the sides as well.’”
James said he felt worse than that.
It was at this moment when Sanchez authorized an alternate duty location for the staff sergeant. She said after she’d seen him work hard for years and take care of others, it was time they reciprocated. James was now assigned to his home, where he could focus on his family.
The outpouring of love and care by the Luke AFB family didn’t end there for the Sykes. The squadron organized meal trains and purchased gas cards. A team of Airmen also went to their home where they constructed a play structure for the immunocompromised 2-year-old who could no longer be around other people while undergoing her treatments.
It has been just over a year since the Sykes family received the devastating news of their daughter’s diagnosis.
At the time of her diagnosis, Zoey had 96 percent of leukemia “blasts” in her bone marrow. Today, while there is no cure, she has achieved remission, which means she has 5 percent or less in her bone marrow now. She has no other leukemia anywhere else in her body and blood counts have returned to normal.
Doctors do not consider a person “cured” in most circumstances unless they have been in remission for at least 10 years.
Although Zoey has attained this much-improved medical status, she still must undergo home administered chemotherapy as maintenance until sometime next year.
A new family emerges
Along with the good news of Zoey’s remission, James received word he was getting a positional promotion as well as a promotion to technical sergeant. This news also meant James would have to attend a noncommissioned officer academy before he could pin on the new rank, a professional development requirement to prepare those NCOs for greater leadership responsibilities. Sheppard would be his destination.
This was James’ third time coming to Sheppard AFB, having started here with initial technical training and returning for 7-level school.
It has been customary for each NCOA class that comes through the school to host a blood drive benefiting a local Texas blood bank. The need for units of blood is something with which the Sykes are all too familiar.
“We’ve had multiple stays in the hospital where we have to wait several hours for them to find blood,” James said. “In the meantime, Zoey suffers through that waiting period.”
Zoey has had to go through upwards of 10 blood transfusions as a result of her treatments for her type of leukemia, including one while he was here. James said watching his daughter go through all that she has, has made him and his family extremely passionate about giving blood.
When James found out their class would participate in a blood drive here, he approached his instructor, Tech. Sgt. Brian Runyon, about addressing his class on the importance of giving blood. For many of his classmates, it was the first time they heard what he and his family had endured to this point.
Jessica had prepared a video of Zoey for James to show, which also was in celebration of her one-year mark since the diagnosis.
“I was able to go up in front of the class and show them their blood could possibly be going to help someone like our Zoey,” James said. “…and that it doesn’t just sit somewhere on a shelf.”
After hearing about the 2-year-old and her journey, another family of Airmen rallied around the Sykes family. What was different this time was that these Airmen only knew each other for a short time since starting the NCOA together and were from 12 different duty stations in the western region of the United States and dozens of different jobs within the Air Force. But, the one commonality they shared was the kinship that happens in the military family. They take care of their own.
More than 130 people heard the message and showed up to give blood on the day of their blood drive.
Sheppard NCOA class 22-4 didn’t stop there with their support. It is typical in the armed forces community to do 5K runs or rucks in honor of a fallen service member or hero. The class instructors were planning just that to culminate and finish their time together before graduation. They decided to honor Zoey for theirs.
“Zoey’s strength has put a lot of things into perspective for me and the others she’s touched around her,” an emotional James said. “She’ll get hours of chemo and we’ll watch the nurse put on layers of protective gear to protect herself from the things she is about to pump into our daughter.”
He said to see his daughter go through that and then go home and want to play makes him realize his days are not allowed to be bad ever again.
“I don’t have the right to complain about anything anymore. My daughter is so strong and she’s only 2. And yes, this was a perfect way to celebrate her.”
On March 28, 2022, a family of 260 Airmen from NCOA Class 22-4 ran, walked and rucked in honor of a 2-year-old little girl who resides 800 miles away. Another example of the even bigger picture ó The Air Force family. Not only did they honor Zoey, but they also raised money to help buy playgrounds for other cancer stricken children, something the Sykes said was one of the best things that they received for their family during this hardship.
Jessica has been at home with the Sykes’ three daughters for roughly five weeks while James has been at NCOA.
“Even though he’s far from home, I don’t feel so alone,” she said. “Here in Arizona, or there in Texas — it doesn’t really matter where he is — it makes me feel like the Air Force actually cares about my family.”
She went on to say that she feels like they see them as people and that they see her children as important.
“I feel very valued, even by people I’ve never even met,” she said.
Jessica also noted that many of the families she’s met caring for children with childhood cancer are not as fortunate as they are with their work situations. In most cases, one of the parents are still forced to work and don’t get to take the time to spend with their family.
“The Air Force has been so understanding,” said the mother of three. “Anytime Zoey has been hospitalized, they are always willing to give my husband time off so we can keep our family together as much as possible. It’s a huge blessing for us. I don’t really know that you can find that anywhere else.”
One of the biggest takeaways for both parents as they have dealt with this over the last year is to ask for help. Both Jessica and James said they found that no matter what, the Air Force was willing to provide so they could take care of their daughter.
“Your military family will always be there to help you carry some of the load,” James said.
Staff Sgt. Sykes graduated from NCOA at Sheppard on April 1, 2022, and reunited with his wife and three girls — and his Luke AFB family.