JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
"Four hundred and eighty-five days ago, I was a squadron commander in the greatest flying squadron in the Air Force - the 435th Fighter Training Squadron."
"I was on the top of my game and on top of the world. I was flying a great mission with great officers," said Col. David Drichta, 12th Operations Group deputy commander. "The only thing that wasn't quite right was I was tired."
"Now, all squadron commanders by their second year are tired. They either will or won't admit it, but they're getting tired."
Two of his daughters had been treated for strep throat prior to Christmas so, "we were treating me for strep throat, thinking you've got two girls who have strep throat - you probably have strep throat."
When medications didn't help, his doctors put in a consult for an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist at Wilford Hall. He never made it to that consult.
"Three days later I started coughing up blood," said Drichta. "I went to the ER, they said 'we've got a serious problem here. We can't even get the scope down your throat because your airway is less than a soda straw right now.'"
They put in a tracheostomy tube, and they biopsied what turned out to be a stage IV cancerous tumor.
'Let's focus on the 100 percent'
After diagnosis, "you can't believe this is happening to you. You've got a hole in your throat to help you breathe, you can't talk, and they tell you have this cancer. 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 them, even if I'm not here."
It soon became obvious that this was going to be a long-term situation. By March, as soon as he was able to get out of the hospital, he gave up command of the squadron and his Air War College assignment.
Hesitating to even ask survival rates for his type of cancer, the lead ENT surgeon, Dr. (Lt. Col.) Cecelia Schmalbach sensed his concern, according to Drichta.
"She told me 'I could tell you the percentage of the patients who live through this but really when it comes down to it, you don't care about that. It's either 100 percent or it's zero percent for you. You're either going to live or you're going to die. So let's focus on the 100 percent.' And that set the tone."
Because of the size and location of the tumor, doctors couldn't operate on it without taking away Drichta's ability to talk or swallow for the remainder of his life.
Instead, doctors treated Drichta with an aggressive course of chemo and concurrent radiation. He received daily radiation with three rounds of chemotherapy of weeks one, four and seven. Because of some health complications, treatment lasted for more than seven weeks.
'They said it was going to be hell'
"They said it was going to be hell. And it was," he said. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. You shouldn't have to go through that. 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 of his throat and mouth. With skin and gums bleeding then falling away and no ability to swallow, Drichta relied on a stomach feeding tube for 3 months.
When Drichta finished treatment, doctors told him it would get worse before it got better, which he confirmed.
"There were points where I was so drained that I literally would lay in my bed and think 'I don't know if I can move my legs or arms right now.' It took me five minutes to sit up. I'd go to take a shower and that would be all I could do for the entire day - the entire day."
After one more hospitalization for a complication of the treatment, Drichta began the slow ascent of recovery.
In early September, doctors did their first PET CT scan after treatment and with great news.
"We couldn't see the tumor anymore and we couldn't see any cancerous stuff going on with the lymph nodes either," but, his lymph nodes were larger than the doctor liked and soon Drichta was under the knife to remove the lymph nodes and check for more cancer.
"Scarring from radiation and previously cancerous lymph nodes had wrapped around my jugular vein and the nerve bundle that controls my left arm. If [the doctor] missed at all, I may not be able to use that arm."
Three and a half hours later, he emerged from surgery with full movement in his arm and best of all, the pathology came back negative for more cancer.
Later that month Drichta was promoted to colonel.
"That was pretty amazing. Then we went to Disney World," he said. "In the middle of chemo and radiation, I was pretty down and I needed something to look forward to, so I planned a vacation as a goal to meet after the treatments."
'Caring for your fellow human being'
"We talk a lot about being good wingmen in the Air Force, but I saw it in action," said Drichta of his fellow Airmen who rallied around him and his family.
"From the Wing Commander, Vice Commander, and Operations Group Commander in my room when I was finally able to sit up, telling me everything was going to be ok and they'd take it from there, to the bros in squadrons far and wide sending e-mails."
"The Operations Group Commander's wife drove 50 miles to pick up my wife from the airport as she was out of town when I went to the ER. My best friend dropped everything and drove from Laughlin AFB to be at my bedside. More friends drove me to the daily radiation treatments. They even set up a pseudo Family Liaison Officer to marshal all the help being offered."
"Everybody was taking care of my wife, my kids and me because I couldn't."
"The 'Wingman Concept.' Caring for your fellow human being; that's what it is," he said. "We spend so much time trying to institutionalize caring for somebody else, when sometimes we should get out of the way and let amazing people in this Air Force get it done. This is a part of who we are - this is what we do."
The medical care complemented the love and support he and his family were receiving, according to Drichta.
"I cannot overstate the level of expertise and the compassionate care," said Drichta of his expansive medical team.
From the flight doc at JBSA-Randolph to the staff at San Antonio Military Medical Center, the ENT department, oral surgery, endocrinology, intervention radiology, radiation oncology, hematology oncology - doctors, nurses, techs, and staff - "these people are incredible."
Can he fly?
After more than a year from diagnosis through recovery, the question of Drichta's ability to return to flight status remained.
The doctors got to work, once again, evaluating his health and after a visit to the Aeromedical Consult Service at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, they recommended a return to flight status - but not in high performance aircraft.
Because there's very little data on pilots with heavy radiation to the neck and damage to tissues, doctors couldn't clear him to go directly back to the T-38, let alone back into the F-15E he grew up in. They gave him the option to test in a centrifuge.
"I went to the centrifuge and was medically monitored. We did the standard T-38 profile - up to 7 ½ Gs - we did everything just like anyone going through that profile. And my body worked great."
And so on June 19, surrounded by family and friends, Drichta marked his return to flight status 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 from me last Spring," said Drichta.
As for what's next for the Drichta family, "the Air Force reset last year's plans and generously placed me in the upcoming Air War College class," which begins this summer.
"I don't know where I'll end up in 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. My resilience is a direct result of so many individuals carrying me though. They are phenomenal Wingmen and Flight Leads in every sense."