Taking care of Airmen: How Air Force mental health services helped a family recover

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Two local NCOs have been on a journey of recovery since losing their son to leukemia nearly nine years ago, a journey they said couldn't have happened without the mental health services available to Airmen and their families.

Master Sgt. Emily Gazzaway, the Air Force Academy's senior enlisted aide, and her husband, Tech. Sgt. Billy Gazzaway, assigned to the 21st Communications Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, said if not for those services, their lives would be vastly different.

"There are so many support services available in the Air Force now more than ever, and Airmen should not be afraid to reach out and use them," Emily said. "Nothing relating to our treatment ever negatively affected our careers. Billy never lost his security clearance because we were getting help. Not one general officer I've ever worked for as an aide said, 'Sorry. You can't work for me anymore.' I've always been more than supported."

Billy and Emily said Airmen should not allow perceptions of stigma or individual circumstance to keep them from getting help.

"Some might say it's acceptable in our case to seek help because we lost a child, but I say it's acceptable in any case," she said. "In my case, I'll always need some level of help. The Air Force provides services I know I'm always going to need."

Supervisors can reduce concerns of stigma associated with getting help, Emily said.

"Supervisors need to talk to, and care about, those they lead," she said. "You can rely on your own experiences to make a point, but you have to pick a moment when you know you need to talk to someone." 

Supervisors can best care for their Airmen by learning about the mental health services available across the Air Force, Billy said.

"Tell your Airmen to be honest with their counselors," he said. "Explain that they should ask for a specific counselor. For example, I wanted a female (counselor) with a background in grief counseling. I find it easier to speak openly to women because I had four sisters. Be sincere about your Airman's life. Get involved and be genuine when you followup with them."

The value of seeking help cannot be underestimated, Billy said.

"A fool will never seek counsel but a wise person will surround themselves with counsel," he said. "Just like when I'm put in charge of a new communications project, I don't try to tackle the entire project alone. I reach out to my peers, subject matter experts and leadership for guidance."

A Boy's Life

Billy and Emily had been married four years and were stationed at Osan Air Base, South Korea, when their first child, John Kadin Gazzaway, was born June 7, 2001.

"We weren't sure if we were going to name him John Kadin or Kadin John, so we used to yell for practice and see what name sounded best," Emily said.

All seemed well for the family. Emily was an enlisted aide for the 7th Air Force commander, Billy was a communications specialist, Kadin appeared to be a healthy little boy.

But life changed for the Gazzaways after they left Osan AB for Tyndall AFB, Fla.

"Kadin stopped sleeping through the night and he wouldn't eat, so I knew something was wrong," Emily said.

She took her son to the Tyndall clinic in November 2001. Doctors there said Kadin had a slight fever, but that wasn't all.

"Kadin's white blood cell count was 69,000," Emily said. "A normal white blood cell count is 5,000-10,000. We immediately knew something was wrong."

Kadin was rushed to Bay Medical Center in Panama City, Fla. There, his white blood cell count registered 74,000.

"We were given the option where to have Kadin treated and drove him to the University of Alabama-Birmingham Children's Hospital that evening, where he was diagnosed with Infantile Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia-B Cell," Emily said. "He was 5 months old. It was Nov. 26, 2001 -- less than a week after Thanksgiving. Because he was so young, he was considered a high-risk patient."

Kadin endured 46 weeks of chemotherapy. His condition improved. He enjoyed his childhood, attended school and played with friends.

"He loved playing with toy dinosaurs and trains, swimming and riding with Billy on his jet ski," Emily said. "He had no fear of the water."  

Just as Kadin was about to enter prekindergarten in September 2005, Billy and Emily discovered a knot on his left thigh.

"The doctors couldn't believe it," Emily said. "They were about to give Kadin a clean bill of health and tell us to come back in a year, but he had this knot on his leg, so he had surgery to remove the knot and perform a biopsy."

The day after it was removed, Kadin's nurse told Emily her son's cancer was no longer in remission.

"I was at the hospital holding and rocking him," she said. "I saw his nurse coming and knew she wouldn't be there unless something was wrong."

Coping with leukemia was different for Kadin now. 

"He was old enough to know how his body should feel," Emily said. "He knew this wasn't how he was supposed to feel."

Through all the treatment and surgery, Kadin was a happy little boy, Billy said.

"The one thing I noticed throughout Kadin's illness is he never complained," he said. "Not when he was being administered chemotherapy, not when he had zero white blood cells, not when he couldn't go outside or had to spend Christmas in the hospital. Never."

Chemotherapy tears down the body's immune system and depletes its white blood cells.

"When your white blood cell count is zero, as Kadin's was several times, you have no immune system and are completely compromised to contract illness or infection," Emily said.

A search for a bone marrow donor for Kadin began.

"Because Billy is of Polynesian descent, it was nearly impossible to find a suitable donor; less than 1 percent of the population matches," Emily said.

Amid all this, the Gazzaways took Kadin to Disney World in January 2006, courtesy of Magic Moments, an organization granting wishes for children treated at the UAB Children's Hospital.

"We struggled with whether we should take him before the transplant or after the transplant when he was well," Emily said. "I'm so thankful we chose to take him before."

Unable to find a bone marrow match for a transplant, Kadin received a suitable stem cell match in February 2006.

"The procedure is essentially the same, but the transplanted cells come from a different source," Emily said.

Due to the high dose of radiation he received before the stem cell transplant, Kadin suffered a diffuse alveolar hemorrhage and was rushed to intensive care. 

"The chemotherapy radiation just shredded his lungs," Emily said. "Going through something like that, you have no immune system. For every small improvement, there were big backward steps. He couldn't catch his breath; it was like he was running up a flight of stairs. Kadin was a pulmonary patient for the last week of his life."

Billy and Emily took turns watching over their son. At one point, Kadin was attached to nine medical machines, Emily said.

Powerless against the combination of cancer and DAH, Kadin died early May 2, 2006. He was about a month shy of his fifth birthday.

Getting Help

"When you're military, you struggle to know what to do 'right now,'" Emily said. "We had to take care of all these issues but we really didn't know what to do."

Emily's memories following Kadin's death are cloudy.

"Billy would talk to me and I would do things but I don't remember any of it," she said. "That first year after his death was a blur."

Kadin was buried at Kent Forrest Lawn in Panama City.

"I went to the cemetery every day for a year," Emily said. "I felt like I had to."

Emily was assigned to the Tyndall Protocol Office after Kadin passed away.

"They did that just to make sure there was someone there to watch me," she said. "All the while I just kept saying, 'I'm fine.' I went back to work but I couldn't even do that anymore. I couldn't take care of myself. Everything was different after Kadin died. There was no order. Billy shut down completely. He was not the person I married."

Billy struggled with not being able to help his son.

"I had to put all my faith in the doctors to take care of my son, when that's supposed to be my job," he said. "I thought Emily and I were a great team during his entire life and illness. I really struggled with my faith in God. About a year after Kadin's death, I realized I needed to talk to a mental health professional." 

Emily went to mental health services in May 2006 to address, among other things, why she couldn't burden Billy with her grief.

"I remember the counselor saying, 'He's the only other person who understands what you're going through, so why not tell him?''

The couple was counseled individually and together for about six months at Tyndall and continued treatment later at Beale AFB, Calif., and Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Avery, in November 2007, Emily was diagnosed with delayed post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There's not a cure for it," she said. "You have to be an active participant in your diagnosis."

Billy began to notice the positive effects of counseling.

My 'aha' moment probably didn't happen until I was at Beale," he said. "At Tyndall, I kind of went through the motions. At Beale, I gave all my trust to (the behavioral health clinician) and told her my complete story."

Billy said the mental health clinicians provided the best atmosphere he could have hoped for.

"The ambience was perfect," he said. "The only uncomfortable aspect was when I actually had to put an imaginary mirror in front of my face and actually tear myself down and breakdown all the walls I'd built over the years to protect myself from pain. The reality is that those walls only hurt us in the end."

Billy shares details of his story with Airmen to let them know how beneficial counseling was for him and Emily.

"I would relate my story to theirs if I could, and tell them how much the mental health services helped me, my life, marriage and career," he said.

Billy and Emily keep Kadin's memory alive by sharing his legacy with Avery.

"I tell her, 'Your brother was sick for a long time; he had leukemia and passed away," Emily said. "He was a brave little boy and he was always happy."

Billy regularly tells Avery about her brother.

"I let her know he enjoyed reading, movies and the toys he played with," he said. "I tell her about his illness and what cancer is. Most importantly, I try to just keep his memory alive for her with videos of Kadin. She loves watching them. Most of the time, I don't have to initiate the dialogue. Avery is always asking questions about Kadin."

Inspired by Kadin's life, Billy and Emily stay involved in Relay for Life and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society activities. Both organizations promote finding a cure for cancer. The Gazzaways are also active with local children's hospitals.

"Since 2006, we've raised money or asked for donations to purchase toys for local children's hospitals," Billy said. "Most of the time, we collect or purchase enough toys for the entire Oncology ward kids and their siblings. It's been a blast. I love watching the faces of children and parents when we walk into their room with gifts. This is our way of paying it forward. That still keeps Kadin with us."

To reach an Academy mental health clinician, call 333-5177 or call the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Outreach Center at 866-966-1020.

Service members, civilians and family members can be reached at Vet4Warriors peer support representative at 855-838-8255.

For confidential assistance, call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647.

Editor's note: This is the second of two stories published to highlight the experience of Academy Airmen who have taken advantage of Air Force mental health services. The first, "Taking care of Airmen: How Air Force mental health services helped an Academy leader," was published Nov. 24 at http://1.usa.gov/1EfWpSS.