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Face of Defense: Air Force NCO Resumes Career After Tumor, Hearing Loss

May 11, 2018

Over 10 years ago, while stationed in Hawaii, Air Force Master Sgt. Geoffrey VanDyck had the constant feeling of water in his ear. He knew something was wrong.

Nothing seemed to relieve the feeling, so his medical provider sent him to an ear, nose and throat specialist. The cause of his pain and discomfort was found: a golf ball-sized tumor — an acoustic neuroma.

According to the Mayo Clinic, acoustic neuroma is a noncancerous, usually slow-growing tumor that develops on the main vestibular nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain. In some cases, it can grow rapidly, pressing against the brain and interfering with vital functions.

In VanDyck’s case, radiation was not an option, so surgery was necessary.

Choosing Surgery

The tumor was located close to VanDyck’s spinal cord, so his doctor gave him two choices: have surgery to remove the tumor and have a 1 percent chance of hearing again or let the tumor continue to grow and have a 100 percent chance of becoming a quadriplegic within a year.

“I did the quick math and said OK, let’s lose the hearing,” VanDyck said.

Concurrently, it was VanDyck’s turn for a permanent change of station. The surgery was scheduled in San Antonio, while he was en route to his next duty station. The timing of the surgery would leave him separated from his family for months, providing him no support network during and after the surgery.

“When I was diagnosed, I had orders to Arizona,” VanDyck said. Doctors said he could be flown to San Antonio for the surgery and fly back and forth every other week for follow-up, but VanDyck knew there had to be another option.

That was when he went to his first sergeant in Hawaii for assistance.

The first sergeant worked through the career field functional manager to get his orders changed to an assignment in San Antonio. There, he could have the surgery and his family would be close by to help him recover.

Recovery

After surgery, VanDyck took four months of convalescent leave for recovery and physical therapy, he said. He lost hearing in his right ear permanently and had to rebalance his body.

“Even sitting up was difficult,” he said. “I would get completely sick and turn pale.”

VanDyck completed extensive physical therapy to learn how to walk, sit up and live life independently again.

“I didn’t know how amazing the body could be,” he said.

Through it all, VanDyck appreciated his first sergeant and the Air Force for allowing his family to be with him.

“I honestly don’t know where I would have been if my family was not there,” he said. “For the first month I couldn’t drive, walk, shower or even live independently.”

VanDyck recalled one of the first times going out in public after his surgery. His family had taken him out to dinner at a local restaurant.

“The ability to process sound is something we take for granted,” he said. “I have no directionality and I also cannot filter out sound.” At the busy restaurant, so much was going on around him that it became overwhelming and his brain wasn’t able to filter out all the sounds. It was at that point that he broke down, felt the loss of his independence and started lashing out, he said.

Making Changes

One day, when his wife sat him down and confronted him about it, he realized how much he needed his family’s help to recover. With the loss of hearing, there were changes that he had to make in his daily life and things he had to become more aware of.

“From where I sit at a table to which side I walk on, whether I’m too close or too far back from someone, I had to take those things into consideration,” he said.

Now, more than 10 years since the diagnosis, VanDyck is now a first sergeant for the 707th Force Support Squadron, and his experiences are giving him an avenue to help airmen during times of need.

“Since becoming a first sergeant I have expanded my knowledge on various tools and resources, and how those rely on the Air Force Instructions, and what rules we have to take care of people,” VanDyck said.

Now, he can use his knowledge and personal experience to help others identify issues and find solutions.

“One of the most difficult hurdles to overcome is to admit something was wrong,” VanDyck said. “To airmen facing personal challenges, the advice I have is: recognize when you are struggling and face the situation head-on. You can’t just ignore a problem. You’re going to have to face it, but you don’t have to do it alone.”