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Face of Defense: Pilot Fights Cancer, Returns to Duty

By Bekah Clark
12th Flying Training Wing

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas, July 3, 2013 – More than a year ago, Air Force Col. David Drichta was a happy man.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Col. David Drichta returns from his first flight after his battle with cancer at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, on June 19, 2013. Drichta, the 12th Operations Group deputy commander, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in February 2012, and after more than a year in recovery was medically cleared to return to flight status. The flight marked his return to flight status as well as his 3,000th flight hour in Air Force aircraft. Courtesy photo by Stacy Nyikos
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Then a lieutenant colonel, he served in a prestigious assignment as the commander of the 435th Fighter Training Squadron here, and looked forward to an even brighter future.

"I was on top of my game and top of the world," Drichta said. "I was flying a great mission with great officers."

But one thing wasn't quite right: Drichta often felt tired.

"Now, all squadron commanders -- by their second year -- are tired," Drichta said. "They either will or won't admit it, but they're getting tired."

Because his daughters recently had strep throat, Drichta assumed he may have caught the infection as well. When medication didn't help, Drichta's doctor referred him to consult with an ear, nose and throat specialist.

Drichta, however, didn't make it to the appointment. Three days later, he started coughing blood.

"I went to the ER [and] they said, 'We have a serious problem here,'" he recalled.

Drichta was told his airway was constricted down to less than the size of a soda straw. A tracheostomy tube -- creating an opening through the neck into the trachea -- and a biopsy confirmed the medical staff's suspicion: Drichta showed a stage IV cancerous tumor.

After the diagnosis, Drichta said, he initially couldn't believe what happening to him. Then came feelings of fear.

"You try not to let your mind go there, but you find yourself thinking, 'I have to tell my family I love them and that I will always love then -- even if I'm not here,'" said Drichta, who said he hesitated to even ask for survival rates for his type of cancer.

His surgeon, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Cecelia Schmalbach, sensed his concern, Drichta said.

"She told me, 'I could tell you the percentage of patients who live through this -- but, really, when it comes down to it ... It's either 100 percent or it's zero percent for you,'" Drichta recalled. "[Then she said,] 'You're either going to live or you're going to die. So let's focus on the 100 percent.'"

This set the tone for his fight, said Drichta, who soon had to give up his command position and Air War College assignment to battle his cancer.

Due to the location of his tumor, doctors could not operate without permanently damaging Drichta's ability to speak and swallow. Instead, Drichta had to undergo an aggressive course of chemotherapy and concurrent daily radiation exposure to fight the tumor's progress.

"They said it was going to be hell," Drichta said. "And it was. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy ... but that was the means to the end. I needed to be a father and a husband, so we hit it with everything the doctors had, hoping for the best."

The daily doses of radiation soon gave Drichta second-degree burns inside and outside his throat and mouth. His skin and gums began bleeding and falling away. Unable to swallow, he relied on a stomach feeding tube for three months.

But his doctors warned him that it would get worse before he could hope for improvement.

"There were points where I was so drained I literally would lay in bed and think, 'I don't know if I can move my legs and arms right now,'" Drichta said. "I'd go to take a shower and that would be all I could do for the entire day -- the entire day."

After additional hospitalization for complications of the treatment, Drichta began a slow ascent to recovery. Then, after months of treatment, doctors approached Drichta with great news: the tumor had disappeared and his lymph nodes were also visibly free of cancerous growth.

Although the news was good, Drichta's lymph nodes were enlarged and required another surgery to check for cancer spread.

"Scarring from radiation and previous cancerous lymph nodes had wrapped around my jugular vein and the nerve bundle that controls my left arm," Drichta said. "If [the surgeon] had missed at all, I may not have been able to use that arm [anymore]."

Drichta, however, emerged from the surgery with full movement of his arm and negative cancer pathology. Later in the same month, he received his promotion to colonel.

Looking back on his care, Drichta said the support he received from his Air Force family was invaluable.

"We talk a lot about being good wingmen ... but I saw it in action," Drichta said. "From the wing commander, vice commander and operations group commander in my room ... telling me everything was going to be OK and they'd take it from here, to [my brothers] in squadrons far and wide sending emails.

"Everybody was taking care my wife, my kids and me because I couldn't," he continued. "The wingman concept -- caring for your fellow human being -- is a part of who we are. This is what we do."

More than a year after his diagnosis, Drichta's return to flight status remained in question. Once again, doctors went to work and began to evaluate his health -- and finally recommended his return to flight status under the condition he passed certain tests.

"I went to the centrifuge and was medially monitored," Drichta said. "We did the standard T-38 [Talon] profile: up to seven-and-a-half Gs. We did everything just like anyone going through that profile. And my body worked great."

Surrounded by family and friends, Drichta marked his return to flight status June 19, with his first T-38 flight since his diagnosis.

"This flight was 484 days after my last flight, my 3,000th hour of flight time in an Air Force aircraft and a flight that cancer tried to steal away from me last spring," Drichta said.

As for the future, Drichta looks forward to an upcoming Air War College class, beginning this summer.

"I don't know where I'll end up the next couple of assignments, but I absolutely have a story to share and a duty to use the perspective I've gained to help others around me," the colonel said. "My resilience is a direct result of so many individuals carrying me through. They are phenomenal wingmen and flight leads in every sense."

 

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