Page 6 - Luke AFB Thunderbolt, May 2022
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May 2022 NewS Thunderbolt
Sykes family expands as AF family steps up
  By miCHeLLe mARTin
82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
SHePPARD AiR FoRCe BASe, Texas — “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 appoint- ments, heartaches, and setbacks. It’s been one of perseverance, discovery and victories.
It’s also been an opportunity of self-reflec- tion, 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 night life changed for Zoey and
the Sykes family.
During what was supposed to be a typical
night of dinner, playing with the kids and nighttime routines, Zoey developed a sig- nificant 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 okay,” James said.
Courtesy photo
Zoey Sykes reads a book at an Arizona hospital while undergoing treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a rare form of cancer, in this Sykes family pho- to. She was diagnosed on World Cancer Day, Feb. 4, 2021. While the Sykes fam- ily’s journey has been challenging, it has also revealed how big the Air Force fam- ily can be.
Their high-energy and full-of-life child was lethargic, she couldn’t walk, and her lips started to take on 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, 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 – I’ve never felt so panicked.”
He said with this new revelation of infor- mation, 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 indi- cate an infection or in this case, leukemia.
On World Cancer Day, Feb. 4, 2021, Zoey was officially diagnosed with Acute Lym- phoblastic 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 impos- sible 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, 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
Michelle Martin
Staff Sgt. James Sykes, center, a Sheppard NCO Academy student from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, gets ready for a low-five during a 5k ruck at Sheppard AFB, Texas, March 28, 2022. Sykes and his classmates participated in the 5k ruck/run in recognition of his 2-year-old daughter, Zoey, who was diagnosed with leukemia in January 2021.
John ingle
Participants in a Sheppard NCO Academy 5k ruck make their way through Wind Creek Park in support of classmate Staff Sgt. James Sykes and his family at Shep- pard Air Force Base, Texas, March 28, 2022. Sykes’ daughter, Zoey, was diagnosed with leukemia.
    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 – 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 the Sykes family needed anything.
Chemotherapy started for Zoey on the first inpatient day at the hospital and continued until her parents were finally able to take her home after a stay of about three weeks. From removing James from his shifts, deal- ing 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 Capt. San- chez-Largares 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 the Sykes home, where they constructed a play structure for the immuno- compromised 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 illness.
At the time of her diagnosis, Zoey had 96 percent of leukemia “blasts” in her bone mar- row. 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 remis- sion, James received word he was getting a positional promotion as well as a promotion to technical sergeant. This news also meant
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