Family isn't always blood

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Rose Gudex
  • 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
People like routines, schedules and structure, especially in the military. Change can sometimes be unwelcome and overwhelming, particularly if it's a sudden, drastic change due to an illness.

For Tech. Sgt. Thomas Echelmeyer, of the 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron, that's exactly what happened. His son, Tom Tom, was diagnosed with leukemia just before his fourth birthday in July 2013. The support of his unit and Airmen he didn't even know, he said, kept his family strong through the many ups and downs of having a child with cancer.

"I'll never forget it," Echelmeyer said. "Just that numb feeling; they don't know what causes this. We didn't do anything to cause this cancer."

Stationed at Royal Air Force Alconbury, England, his family wasn't anywhere near them for support. One night at the hospital turned into 10 nights for an intense chemotherapy treatment for Tom Tom, and just Echelmeyer and his wife there to help each other through it, he said.

But that wasn't just the only support they had. As soon as his group commander found out, Echelmeyer said he was placed on permissive temporary duty and people they didn't know were starting to reach out with support.

"They were offering us just tremendous amounts of support," he said. "We were getting letters and cards from children and spouses in the church. Different folks and entities around the base helping us out and reaching out to a family in need and giving us support."

The spontaneous support was welcomed because even though they were soon able to go home, being out of the hospital didn't mean the hard part was over. They had to have a nurse come out to their house once a week and they also had to learn how to administer chemotherapy to their own son, he said.

After just 30 days of his initial treatment, Tom Tom went into remission. The good news didn't last long as a minimal residual disease test came back high, indicating he would relapse.

"That meant more chemo, more often and stronger chemo," Echelmeyer said, "another setback."

Again, Airmen and their families, church members and other people they didn't know stepped up to support their family, he said.

The New Year was approaching and Echelmeyer got selected for reassignment to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. This assignment was great, he said, because his family was from Pennsylvania and his wife's from Maryland, which meant family members would be nearby for future support during overnight hospital stays.

His family was very excited for the move but two weeks before they were scheduled to move to D.C., Echelmeyer said his job at Bolling was eliminated. As a result, he was diverted to Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.

In those two weeks, he had to reach out to the medical clinic and his new flight to figure things out. He said it was stressful trying to make hasty arrangements for a last minute move.

"I'm going to arrive on a Thursday," Echelmeyer said. "The following day my son needed to start treatment in that maintenance phase."

The whole family made the long flight from England to Colorado. There were people waiting for them at the airport to help get them to base. Once they got to lodging, he said there was even more support. There was an outpour of support from the community.

"There was baskets of food, there was toys for Tom Tom, there were books for him and books for us on real estate, apartments, houses," Echelmeyer said.

The list of items went on and on. He said they even received a car to use because Tom Tom's treatment started the next day and they didn't have a vehicle yet.

To this day, Tom Tom is still in the maintenance phase of treatment. Every single night Echelmeyer gives his son a dose of chemo, every Thursday he gets an additional dose and once a month he has to go to the clinic for a special treatment of chemo.

"We have about a year left in the maintenance phase ... so that's good," Echelmeyer said, with an apprehensive laugh.

For his family, the help received in both England and at Peterson was immeasurable, he said. All the support helped his family keep their sanity and worry less about the little things.

One thing that helped them, and especially Tom Tom, was the opportunity for him to be an Airman for a day at Alconbury. He was sworn in the Air Force, received dog tags and got to see what it was like to serve in the military for a day.

"He got to do all the things boys like to do," Echelmeyer said. "He got to arrest me as one of the cops, it was great."

The event showed how the support of those around him helped increase the family's spirits through a challenging time in their lives, he said.

"It's the folks around you. They may not have their family around, just like we didn't when we were in England," he said. "The only support we have are the fellow folks who wear the same uniform."

The wingman concept cannot be clearer in how supportive Airmen and other people were for Echelmeyer and his family. By donning the uniform of the U.S. Air Force, he said he found himself with even more brothers and sisters who can be counted on for support -- anytime, anywhere.