'5k for AJ' to raise funds for Keesler member

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Riding bikes with his wife and children is one of the family activities Master Sgt. Albert "AJ" Jackson has enjoyed the most. All that has changed since a medical crisis paralyzed the 36-year-old member of the 335th Training Squadron.

But the 335th TRS "Bulls" have rallied to raise the funds to buy a hand-peddled cycle by sponsoring a "5K for AJ" at 9 a.m., Dec. 14 in the Triangle. The registration fee is $20 with a T-shirt and $10 without a shirt. Runners who want a shirt must register by Nov. 20, but other participants can sign up until the day of the event.

"It's a no-brainer to do something like this for one of our own," said Senior Master Sgt. Jerrod Webb, 335th TRS superintendent. "In one of our meetings, AJ said he really misses riding bikes with his family and mentioned that he had looked into getting a hand cycle, but that they were really expensive - around $2,000."

"Some of our members came up with the idea of doing a 5-kilometer run to gather donations," he added. "We've all done fundraisers, and it's exciting to be able to do something like this for one of our own."

AJ is a career development course writer in the squadron's weather schoolhouse. His wife, Staff Sgt. Ashley Jackson, is an initial skills weather instructor. They've been married for almost eight years and arrived at Keesler in March 2010. In December, he'll have 18 years of Air Force service and Ashley will have 10 years.

For someone who has thrived on cycling, running, weightlifting and playing basketball, the past year has been unbelievably challenging for the Jacksons, who are parents of two young children, he said.

Just a year ago, AJ woke up at 3 a.m., with excruciating back pain.
He woke his wife, but didn't want to drag their children out in the morning hours. He drove himself from their home to the emergency room at Keesler Medical Center where he was quickly diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.

Fortunately for him, the physician on call in the ER was Maj. (Dr.) Jennifer Sexton, a vascular surgeon who's currently deployed.

"Dr. Sexton was instrumental in getting AJ the best care possible," Ashley pointed out. "She was the reason we were able to see some of the medical pioneers at Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center in Houston. She had gone to a symposium with Dr. Anthony Estrera, one of the leaders in the type of vascular surgery that AJ needed. She hooked us up."

Hermann's Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, called TIRR for short, is recognized as the No. 3 rehabilitation center in the country.
Dr. Estrera and his colleague, Dr. Hazim Safi, were fascinated by AJ's case, Jackson explained

"They couldn't figure out why it was happening to him - he was young, he was active, he didn't have hypertension," Ashley said.

"The doctors suspected that I had Marfan syndrome from the get-go," AJ recalled. "However, that possibility wasn't confirmed until the results of genetic testing were obtained in March."

Marfan syndrome causes abnormal connective tissue and often affects the connective tissue of the heart and blood vessels, eyes, bones, lungs and covering of the spinal cord. Because the condition affects many parts of the body, it can cause many complications. Sometimes the complications are life-threatening.

Three out of four cases of Marfan syndrome have a genetic basis, but AJ had no family history of the disorder.

"You can live your whole life and never have a symptom and test positive for Marfan," Ashley pointed out. "It's not that uncommon - one in 5,000 people have it. Abraham Lincoln had it. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has it."

AJ's initial surgery on his aorta in January went very smoothly. But the next surgeries in June were much more complicated. AJ was in intensive care for a month of the two months they spent in Houston.

"The June 19 procedure was a huge surgery - bigger than a heart
transplant," Ashley explained. "Only six or seven surgeons in the whole country do it. AJ had severe complications - we almost lost him."

"He was bleeding so much they couldn't completely close him up," she explained. "They did a 'wound vac' - they left him partially open and had a vacuum that pulled the blood out while they were replacing his blood."

The Jacksons knew going into surgery that there was a two to three percent chance of some type of paralysis, but with Marfan syndrome, there's a wide spectrum - from not being able to wiggle the toes to extensive paralysis.

"There's about a five percent chance of eventually overcoming this paralysis," AJ remarked. "My spinal cord is still intact, but I had an ischemic stroke during surgery. There is a lot of swelling around the spinal cord, and it's expected to take six months to two years for it to go down."

AJ's vocal cords were also affected and required two additional surgeries. His memory and orientation were impacted at first.

His follow-up medical visits are at Keesler Medical Center. He has physical, occupational and speech therapy three times a week at Singing River Neuroscience Center in Ocean Springs.

"Therapy is going well, especially with my speech - I could barely talk above a whisper when I first got out of the hospital," he said with a strong, steady voice. "The physical therapy is building up my strength and stamina."

"AJ may be looking at years of rehab, and then possibly walking with a cane or walker," Ashley commented. "We are so lucky to have the resources, technology and equipment available. We just have to have a determined will and mindset and not take 'no' for an answer."

Right now, the Jacksons are forced to play a waiting game. The paperwork has been initiated for a medical evaluation board for AJ. Ashley returned to work Nov. 4, and plans to separate from the service next summer to care for her family. They plan to remain in Ocean Springs, where they've been bolstered by support from their Keesler family and a host of friends in the community.

Ashley's family in Headland, Ala., has been a godsend, caring for their 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son during both of AJ's hospitalizations in Houston, Ashley said. When AJ's condition was critical, a van load of family members came to Houston to rally around the Jacksons.

"For lack of a better term, Ashley has become the head of the household," AJ said, "She's handling the finances and managing everything. She's been amazing - she's really stepped up. It's been an eye-opening experience for both of us when it comes to independence, dependence and relying on other people."

"I think I miss AJ driving the most," Ashley remarked. "Getting him back and forth to appointments, then the two kids, and we have horses and dogs and cats - getting it all done in a day can be tough. People say, 'I don't think I could be that strong.' It's not a choice - it was game time and quitting is not an option."

"It's been a very trying time for us - it's a lot to absorb at our age and stage of life," she commented. "AJ is very patient, optimistic and has a lot of faith. I'm more of a pusher -- I'm also very direct, so I think it balances our relationship."

Though it has been a challenging year, friends and family have stepped up to help the Jackson family.

One of the Jacksons' neighbors widened the bathroom door for free except for materials. Maneuvering around the house can be challenging, but Webb said that any proceeds remaining after the purchase of the hand cycle will be given to the family for modifications to their home.

"For 18 years I've preached to our younger Airmen that the Air Force is a family, but I never had to count on that until now," he admitted. "All the pieces have fallen into place for us."

Tech. Sgt. Gayle Feist, one of Ashley's best friends and a fellow weather instructor, has helped organize the 5-Km fundraiser.

"In our squadron, we think of ourselves as family and take care of our members," she commented. "This 5 Km event means a lot to the 335th. By helping the Jackson family adjust to the changes forced upon them, we are saying thanks for all they have done."

"It really makes me proud to see how we've come together to help a fellow Airman in true 'wingman spirit,'" Webb exclaimed. "We're confident that we'll have a great turnout."

For more information or to sign up, call Webb, 377-1957.