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Resiliency, hard work pay off for fitness test, Aug 15, 2012


Master Sgt. Michele Smith

By Master Sgt. Michele Smith
Readiness Management Group

These past two years have been an emotional as well as physical journey for me. In June 2011, I failed my PT Test for the first time in my Air Force career. The next month I was diagnosed with two cerebral aneurysms – one in the middle of my brain and the other on my left side. The one on the left side was too small and not considered in danger of bursting; however, the one in the middle was at a size that the neurologist recommended surgery to repair it before ruptured. I went in for surgery on October 2011. I don’t remember anything after I told my sisters, “I will see you when I wake up,” as they wheeled me into the operating room. The doctors said the surgery went well; however, shortly after being in the recovery room the nurse noticed that I could not talk or move my right side. I was having a stroke. They immediately took me back into surgery and broke up the clot in my brain that was causing the stroke. I truly believe without the prayers of my family, friends and co-workers, I would not be here today. GOD gave me a new lease on life.

Well, after being in intensive care for five days and convalescent leave for close to eight weeks, I returned to work. In January 2012, the doctors cleared me to resume my exercise regimen. So, for the next month and a half I went back to my normal routine and exercised at least three times a week, even though I was still scared that the coils in my brain might come out. At that time, I felt very confident that I would pass. In March, I felt like an utter failure; I failed my PT test again. I felt defeated. I had just overcome a major obstacle in my life, felt like I was back on track, and then experience a setback by failing again.

Both my fitness monitor and my supervisor rallied behind me and kept encouraging me not to give up. I enrolled in a fit-to-fight class on base and a boot camp class in the local community. With help and encouragement, I stayed focused. I watched what I ate and exercised regularly five days a week. It has been a long three months. My age and metabolism were working against me and it felt like an uphill battle. My test date was upon me before I knew it and I was extremely nervous to say the least. The highest that I had ever scored on the test was an 89.50. Well…….I did awesome! I got a 99.30. I maxed out everything, except for my run. I was elated and overjoyed! I felt like I had overcome something that I did not think or feel that I could bounce back from. Without the support of family and friends and sheer determination, I would have given up and failed a third time. It wasn’t an option though.

Although I passed the test and do not have to take it for another year, I have maintained a healthy lifestyle by eating right and exercising regularly. It feels good to be alive and healthy!

Photo: Master Sgt. Michele Smith, unit training manager for the Readiness Management Group at Air Force Reserve Command, Robins Air Force Base, Ga., conducts strength-training with weights in an effort to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Smith was diagnosed with two cerebral aneurysms last year after failing her fitness test. After surgery, Smith changed her fitness regimen and passed her PT test. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Megan Tomkins)

Never saw this coming: Lessons learned in trying times

Maj. Gen. A. J. StewartBy Maj. Gen. A. J. Stewart
Air Force Personnel Center Commander

I had the world by the tail: U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, Air Force pilot, six-time commander, 30-year Air Force career, and two stars; fit, healthy and strong. But subtle problems appeared out of nowhere: occasional vertigo, mild persistent headaches, cognitive challenges, having to stop during a hard run.

I went to see the flight surgeon and was immediately referred to a Neurologist. An MRI revealed a golf-ball sized tumor on the left temporal lobe of my brain and the doctor bluntly told me, “Your life will never be the same.” I was literally stunned.

Swelling was critical and I was admitted for surgery five days later. The surgeon briefed me on all that could go wrong, but the young Air Force captain performed expertly. He gets my vote if I ever need another surgery.

The tumor was successfully removed down to the microscopic level. The question remained “why did I have a tumor?” The news from the lab was not good: malignant growth from stage IV of the worst form of brain cancer.

It was time to fight.

After a few weeks of recovery from surgery, I felt like a million bucks. My fitness and strength were returning and I was back to full duty and physical activity. I, also, simultaneously started a six-week, aggressive anti-cancer radiation and chemotherapy treatment plan.

The doctors told me I would be fatigued, suffer nausea and lack energy from the treatment. To counter those potential symptoms, I got back in the weight room, back on my bike, back on the running trail, back on the golf course and back to full time duty as commander of the best organization in the Air Force – Air Force Personnel Center!

The negative side effects never showed up. My fitness, strength and health remained good but it was also the hundreds of e-mails, cards, letters and prayers from my family, friends, coworkers and even strangers that helped me keep my spirit up.

Last week, I completed my last of 30 radiation and 42 chemotherapy treatments and I still feel great! The next critical step is another MRI in a few weeks to see if the cancer has returned. I pray for good results.

I never saw any of this coming.

I have learned a few lessons along the way that may help others who find they are facing tremendous challenges.

Be fit, be strong, and be healthy every day. Fitness is not about just passing the Air Force Fitness Test or deploying, it is about saving your life. A well rested, strong body and a healthy diet can help you fight off tough challenges when they come.

Life is short and precious. If there are things you want to accomplish in life, get busy now. “One day” and “someday” may never come. Push yourself to do more, now. Tomorrow is not promised, so do not waste a day.

Be positive. Brain tumors can be fatal so there’s no room for defeatism; you have to fight a challenge like you intend to win. Leave negative thoughts behind and be ready to endure. Run your race like a winner. Attitude may be the number one component of success.

Be open and honest, up and down the chain. Our Air Force is a family. I have received the support of literally hundreds of kindred Airmen, with a big “A.” The Air Force has proven itself a family from our senior leadership to our youngest Airmen, including civilians and supporters. If folks know your challenges, they can help. My AFPC and A1 family have been magnificent. They have opened their arms and hearts, and carried me through the tough times.

Be a bouncer. Bad things sometimes happen. It is not a question of whether you will take a fall so, get over it. The question is will you bounce back. It is really up to you. Be tough minded – you are a warrior! Think like a winner and bounce.

Love your family. My wife, Areetha, has been the “wind beneath my wings” and my rock. She has been beside me every step of this journey and she insists I keep a positive attitude. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon last fall at age 50! She is 100% positive and endures. I thank God for having her as my wingman. My Mom, sisters and extended family have also been my cheering section. They are irreplaceable and I love them dearly.

This is a tough, unexpected fight and it is not over. Our most humble “THANK YOU!” from Areetha and me. We are overwhelmed with your support, words of encouragement and prayers.

I’ve cleared a few hurdles but the fight is still on. I intend to win.