Life-changing experience leads Airman to become CFC advocate

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman David Owsianka
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
When a child is brought into the world, a parent realizes they will do anything or even give their life to protect their child. What would you do if you were told that your child is ill one month prior to leaving for another country?

The morning of June 25, 2009, Senior Master Sgt. Jason Cooper, 5th Reconnaissance Squadron aircraft maintenance squadron superintendent, was on the back porch of his house in Florida when he received a phone call from his ex-wife, Rhonda, telling him his son, Dillon, woke up with a headache and was vomiting at their home in Las Vegas, Nev.

"The combination of the two set off some bells and whistles in the parent in me," Cooper said. "As a parent, you get that feeling when you know something is not right. Rhonda took him [Dillon] to a neurologist, and he was written off as having a migraine."

At the time, Cooper was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and in the process of moving to Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea.

"After Rhonda and I got divorced, I would have our two boys for the summer in Florida," he said. "I put in to have orders to Osan in an attempt to get back to Nellis AFB, Nev., to get closer to my kids."

A couple days passed, and Dillon's symptoms progressively became worse. Dillon was now waking up every day with a headache and throwing up.

Cooper did a partial do-it-yourself move, which allows military personnel to move their belongings themselves, to visit his children one last time before boarding the plane to leave for Korea.

Cooper spoke with Dillon on the phone July 3, 2009, while in Shamrock, Texas.

"To hear the way he talked to me and what he had to say, while every other word was 'ow' or 'ow my head hurts,' worried me," Cooper said. "I spoke with Rhonda and told her that she needed to take him to the emergency room now."

The doctors did a cat scan and found a mass, which happened to be a brain tumor, on his brain stem. Dillon had to be medevac'd from Nellis to a children's hospital in Las Vegas.

Cooper arrived in the hospital on the night of July 4, 2009, to meet Dillon in the intensive care unit at the hospital.

"I walked through the doors, saw my son standing at the window watching the fireworks, and I hugged him," Cooper said. "We hadn't told him yet that he had a brain tumor, and I wasn't sure if he would have grasped what it was.

"Moments later, I watched him walk down the hall, and he couldn't walk a straight line," he said. "The tumor was pushing on his cerebellum at the base of his brain which controls a person's balance. He was using the wall to keep himself from falling over."

Dillon was diagnosed with having a high-grade Medulloblastoma. It is a highly malignant brain tumor that originates in the part of the brain toward the back and bottom in the cerebellum. Symptoms include repeated episodes of vomiting and morning headaches, stumbling walk, frequent falls, facial sensory loss or motor weakness.

"The worst thing you can hear as a parent is that your son is dying or very ill," Cooper explained. "I would have much rather it had been me, I have already lived my life and he hasn't. He hasn't done those things in life that we cherish, such as the first time we drove a car, our first kiss or our first date."

The neurosurgeon at the children's hospital wanted to perform brain surgery.

"As a parent I was scared," Cooper said. "I asked, 'what if we elect not to do surgery?' The doctor told us that our son will die in two weeks. When I heard my 9-year-old son would have only two weeks to live if he didn't remove the tumor, I had tidal wave of emotions that rippled through my body."

Dillon underwent a nine-and-a-half hour brain surgery July 5, 2009, to remove the tumor that was roughly the size of a walnut.

After the doctor finished the surgery, he walked to the parents and said, "I got the entire tumor out, and your son has lost about a teaspoon of blood," Cooper recalled.

Dillon wasn't out of the woods yet, there was still a long year ahead. Dillon had to go through radiation treatment five days a week for six week's straight, and then had a six-week break before going into chemotherapy for one year.

"I was too young to fully understand what was going on when I found out I had cancer," Dillon said. "It was crazy and confusing going through chemotherapy at such a young age. It felt horrible going through the treatment."

The sentiments weren't that different for Rhonda.

"It was a living hell not knowing from one moment to the next if I was going to lose my child to the cancer monster," she said. "To watch your helpless child get chemo pumped into his body and know there will be sickness that comes with the drugs that are helping save his life while knowing I cannot make it better or go away is a feeling I cannot even begin to describe.

"I felt I failed him as a mother," she continued. "To me, mothers are supposed to make everything better when your child is sick. But this time, I was helpless to my child. I could make him comfortable, but I could not fix it."

As Cooper and Rhonda sat in the oncologist's office in July 2010, they were handed a business card for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. After being told about the foundation, they asked Dillon, "What do you wish for, what would you love to do that we cannot provide you?"

Dillon's wish was to meet the Miami Dolphins football team. The family contacted their representative and everything was put into motion.

In November 2010, the family flew to Miami, took a limo ride, stayed in two rooms on the beach, received sideline passes for the game and got to meet the team after the game.

"It felt great knowing I was able to choose whatever I wanted to do," Dillon said. "It was amazing to be able watch the Dolphins game live and to meet and interact with the players."

Seeing their son experience his wish is a memory the parents will not forget.

"To watch his face light up as he walked out of the tunnel and onto the field for the first time was amazing," Cooper said. "His face could have lit up the stadium. It is a memory that we will take with us for the rest of our lives."

Dillon completed his chemotherapy in September 2010.

"It felt awesome entering into a state of remission, because I finally felt like I could do things I wasn't able to do when I had cancer," Dillon said. "Going through this has helped me learn to enjoy the little things in life. I live my life as if there would not be a tomorrow because tomorrow is not promised for anyone."

In September 2015, Dillon will be considered cured.

"I'm happy my son is cancer free; however, there is not a day that goes by I do not worry the cancer may have returned when he has a headache or throws up," Rhonda said. "I never take any time I have with my boys for granted. After going through this, I now know I am not promised tomorrow with them and the little things are what matters."

After enduring this painful time, Cooper has become more involved with the Combined Federal Campaign program through Air Force every year. CFC is the world's largest annual workplace charity campaign with approximately 200 CFC campaigns throughout the world.

"Like most people, I donated to CFC to get the rep off my back," Cooper said. "I first became a representative while stationed at Tyndall and have continued being once since."

After his son became sick, Cooper started dissecting some of the organizations.

"These organizations don't have an endless pot of money," he said. "We all know the world revolves around money and time; time these organizations have, money they don't. That's the important thing to foot stomp -- why we do what we do.

"What is the big picture?" he continued. "Is it to get your CFC rep off of your back or to have a tax write-off at the end of the year if you donate enough? Or, is the big picture to help little kids, like Dillon, see their wish come true."