This first appeared in The Havok Journal on April 30, 2021.
The thirty-minute drive from Beaufort to Parris Island seemed to take hours. I contemplated the impact of the coming news. I went back in time about a year and a half to when Megan and I visited our families back up north in Boston while on military leave for ten days. That first Tuesday of my visit, my mother invited me to join her for her doctor’s visit. I was right there with her when she learned of her diagnosis of breast cancer. I watched my mother get quiet, angry even, and then drift into a stoic state of emotional isolation. She asked me to break the news to my father for her, and I did. That was one of the toughest son-to-father conversations I ever remember having with my dad.
The next tremor to rock our family came on Thursday. A tumor had been removed from my father’s bladder prior to our family visit, and that morning, he was called into his urologist’s office. Both Mom and I accompanied Dad to his doctor’s appointment. Dad’s test proved to be positive for malignant bladder cancer. I was grateful to be home for both my parents for support as they started on their respective emotional roller coasters.
Now, as I sat driving for over thirty minutes, I began wondering if I was going to respond like Mom and get angry. Or would I respond more like Dad, who was hit with a right hook on Tuesday and an uppercut on Thursday, and go down for the count emotionally? We would soon find out.
Entering Captain Morgan’s office, I saw that it was just Captain Morgan and me—one-on-one.
“Captain Trombly, your biopsy revealed you have Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. There exist two broad types of lymphomas: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It would have been better to have Hodgkin’s.”
“So how bad is it?”
“The gravity of your situation will be better understood after a full set of tests. I have you scheduled to be medivaced to a small Army hospital not too far away in Georgia tomorrow for staging.”
Army? I was a Marine, Department of the Navy. Or as we like to jest around our Navy peers, “The Men’s Department of the Navy!”
“Sir, as a Marine Captain and part of the United States Navy, would I not rate going to the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, Maryland? If the President gets cancer, or my congressman gets cancer—they’re going to Bethesda. Correct?”
“Captain, I don’t think you understand how challenging it would be to get you into Bethesda with such short notice. Army or Navy—they’re all doctors. Our friends in Georgia can begin testing immediately.”
Our dialogue on my staging location continued for a few more minutes, but Captain Morgan ultimately assured me he would see what he could do in the morning.
As the doc began to unfold this uncharted and unfamiliar flight path that lay before me, I suddenly realized I had a very important phone call to make. I asked if we could take a brief time out and if I could possibly borrow his phone. The Captain immediately nodded affirmatively and asked if I needed privacy. I replied, “No, Captain, just your phone.”
I dialed the number for ATOM, the OPSO, and was relieved when he answered the phone.
“Hey, boss, it’s T-BONE.”
There was silence for a moment as he paused before asking, “Everything all right? You left abruptly after the General’s meeting, and someone said you went to medical. Where are you?”
“Parris Island Dental,” I informed him.
ATOM responded with a colorful enough response that clearly conveyed in Marine Corps fashion that he was genuinely worried about me.
“Dental? Well, thank God. For a minute there, you had me thinking you had cancer or some other shit like that.”
“Ironically, I do have cancer, ATOM.”
“You what, T-BONE?”
“I do have cancer, ATOM, and we will need to talk more about it in person. But I need to get back with DOC now. Please just find a replacement for tomorrow’s mission, Sir, and I’ll be in first thing in the morning to update the CO at his convenience.”
“You got it, T-BONE. I’ll inform the CO now.”
We hung up. I went back to my seat, and my oral surgeon went back to his desk. Captain Morgan must have felt I didn’t understand what was going on or the gravity of the situation. But I was a pilot, and I had immediately gone into problem-solving mode. I didn’t want our guys to lose those two days of training events, and therefore, somebody had to take those flights for me. The show must go on, even if I was grounded.
With tomorrow’s flights no longer on my mind, Doc and I covered the remaining items we needed to cover, and the conversation wrapped up fairly quickly. The Captain stood up, reaching to shake my hand. For the first time, I realized Captain Morgan was visibly upset. I didn’t know at the time, but years later I learned that my serious cancer diagnosis was the first time he had been saddled with the responsibility of breaking that kind of news to a patient in the twenty-plus years of his military medical career.
He was solemn, apologizing for the bad news he had just shared with me and continually looking down in the direction of my flight boots or the floor.
Recognizing his deep concern, I squeezed his hand good and hard as we shook—not to be disrespectful, but certainly to gain his attention. He looked up questioningly, probably wondering if I had lost my mind. Having quickly gained his full attention, I gave him the best encouragement I could.
“Doc, I’m not dead yet, and a strong will to win is second only to a deep faith in God. I have both! I will not only beat this disease, but I will fly again!”