On 21 October 2016, shortly after my 32nd birthday I was given tragic news that would forever change my life: I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and my career as a professional helicopter pilot was over. My family doctor; a man that has known me my entire life; who subsequently, understands my passion for flying—the same passion many you must share—was the one who broke the news to me. I understood what the diagnosis meant and I am not ashamed to admit, I was crying like a baby in the arms of my girlfriend. She being a clinical pharmacist, was a voice of reason and the rock of stability I needed for our coming tribulations. In between my tears, I remember my physician recalling his morning conversation with his wife. “I will have to end a pilot’s career later today,” he’d told her. He also had a tear in his eye because he knew what the lab results meant.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the cells of the pancreas. As a result, the pancreas becomes unable to release insulin; a hormone that regulates blood sugar throughout the body. Type 1 diabetes has no cure; it is deadly if not properly controlled. Type 1 usually manifests in children and young adults and is thought to be caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors. To be diagnosed as a healthy and fit 32-year-old is rare. For the rest of my life, I will have to take multiple shots of insulin per day just to stay alive.
The strange thing about that fateful morning is I don’t remember being concerned about my health, I don’t remember my blood sugars were through the roof and I was extremely sick. I remember being terrified of not flying and petrified of losing my profession and my passion. I was losing everything that I had worked so hard to achieve. The moment before my diagnosis, all my struggles and sacrifices were paying off. I was flying my dream job in my dream helicopter in my hometown. I was ready to buy a house and start a family. All these thing I had put off and on hold until I achieved my goals. I was flying SPIFR EMS in an EC-135 and loving life. My goals were finally accomplished!
I had done everything I could to become a pilot. It was my dream since childhood and that dream never came easy. I enlisted in the Navy in hopes of becoming an officer and a pilot. I worked as a flight line technician at a local FBO while putting myself through flight school. I amassed a lot of debt and became a CFII, clawed my way up the flight instructor food chain during the Great Recession. Then I worked for Papillon and Maverick Helicopters in the Grand Canyon and was fortunate enough to become involved in EMS with PHI Air Medical. I was a SPIFR captain for Metro Aviation when I was diagnosed. While working my way up I put myself through college earning my B.S. in aviation management and was in the process of completing my master’s degree through Embry-Riddle. I worked for some of the best companies in the industry; I did everything right and I did everything I was supposed to do. I was in my prime when when I lost my career at the age of 32. I wasn’t yet an old man who had accomplished all of his flying goals and then lost his medical exam. It was not fair and as I write this I am still angry at the cruel cards that life dealt me.
Angry, sad, confused, and all the other emotions you can imagine, I have experienced since that day. But, I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason and you are who you are based on your reactions to those things. I had two choices: roll over into a bottle or pick myself up and become a better person. I choose the latter. I choose— not chose—because this is a constant struggle I find myself in and I struggle every day to recreate the person I am.
I pondered completely leaving aviation. Maybe starting in real-estate, maybe going to medical school or maybe I’d take my insurance money and buy a sailboat, just check out from life and go live in the Caribbean, living off of rum and whatever I caught in the ocean. This last thought brings me to why I write this letter and what motivates me to share what I have learned. I was fortunate to have the foresight to purchase a loss of medical certificate disability insurance policy on myself. Metro Aviation is kind enough to offer a company plan for long-term disability and I enrolled in it at the age of 30. It was the last thing I ever thought I would need, but thank the heavens above I listened to that little guy on my shoulder because in the end at least I am not going to have to live on the streets. My long-term disability was to pay my salary for two years. I ended up taking a lump sum payment that was equal to two years’ worth of work. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this article to write about all the intricacies of insurance premiums and policies. By all means, please heed my warning and get yourself a loss of medical certificate insurance policy!
It took a good five months for the insurance company to pay out. Those five months were tough ones, full of uncertainty and doubt. Uncertainty about what the future holds for my family and myself. Luckily, I made solid connections and friendships throughout my career in the industry that were able to come to the rescue. I am blessed to be able to stay in the profession that I love because of the amazing technology available to us. Through networking, hard work and connections I was able to secure a job. A little over a year after my diagnosis, I accepted a position in Denver as an AS-350 and an EC-135 check airmen in Level D simulators and I was able to earn back my third-class medical. Although, I can no longer fly professionally, I believe I am making more of an impact now as a check airmen. My hope is that I can help the industry by improving safety one pilot at a time. I was able to overcome a huge obstacle placed in my path and in the end, come out a better person. I still struggle every day with the disease, and at times it’s very hard to manage, but life continues and for that I am eternally grateful. For everyone that was there for me, I cannot thank you enough.
Everyone who reads my story can take what they want from it. My goal is to inform and educate all pilots how fragile a livelihood we have chosen. Once a year, we all step in front of that medical examiner and hope for the best. Most of us squeak by and live to fly another day. I want you to learn from my tragedy. You can lose your medical and you better be prepared. Buy a loss-of-medical certificate insurance policy, have another source of income or, at the very least, do not live paycheck to paycheck. Maintain at least a three-month emergency fund in your bank account.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a parting thought: The next time you find yourself up in the sky while a sunset unfolds below your feet, or when you find a moment of peace when the air is smooth like glass. Remember me and remember all that you have and how lucky you are to be living your dream. Friendly skies and greasy side up.