An angel with fixed wings

Madisyn is a typical 6-year old girl. She loves playing with Barbies, pretending to be a princess and playing with her younger brother. She’s full of life, energy and always has a smile on her face.

Jessica Gardner, Madisyn’s mom, a Kodiak resident and single mother of two, was working full-time at the Kodiak Island Housing Authority. But Jessica and her family’s world came to a screeching halt when Madisyn was playing and thought she might have a broken arm.

“In August, Madisyn fell off the trampoline and her left arm swelled up,” said Jessica. “I took her to the doctor and they said her arm was bruised, she didn’t need an x-ray and it should get better after a while.”

Between August and early October, Jessica took Madisyn several times to the doctor and each time the doctor told her that it wasn’t broken and should heal. Finally, on Oct. 5, Jessica requested an x-ray to see why Madisyn’s arm had not healed.

With x-ray results in hand, the doctor took Jessica and Madisyn to radiology and showed them the tumor inside Madisyn’s arm. The Kodiak doctors had spoke to a pediatric oncologist in Seattle and it was determined Jessica and Madisyn should get to Seattle as soon as possible. Madisyn was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma. It is a rare disease where cancer cells are found in the bone or soft tissue. This news struck fear and uncertainty both in Jessica and Madisyn.

Jessica tried for several days to get a flight out of Kodiak, but due to thick fog, no flights were coming into the island. It was now Oct. 13. Jessica and Madisyn were at the airport trying to get another flight.

“We were at the airport the whole time,” said Jessica. “We were hoping and praying one flight would get in.”

Lt. Amanda Henderson, Coast Guard finance officer at Base Support Unit in Kodiak, was feeling frustrated while she waited for a commercial flight at the Kodiak airport Oct. 13., also. She had an appointment in Anchorage and from the thick fog didn’t know if it would be canceled.

“When I heard the first flight was canceled, I didn’t know if the next one was going to be able to get in or not,” said Henderson. “I stepped outside to get some fresh air and struck up a conversation with my friend that worked at the airport.”

Her friend asked Henderson if she was willing to give up her plane seat to the young girl waiting on the bench if the next flight didn’t get canceled. Henderson learned the young girl found out three days ago she has cancer and she and her mother had been trying to get off the island for three days.

Henderson knew it was more important to give up her seat to this girl than go to her appointment.

“For some reason, I stuck around to see if the second flight was going to be canceled,” said Henderson. “Once they announced the flight into Kodiak was canceled, I could see the frustration upon the mother’s face.”

Henderson, who is married to a Coast Guard C-130 aviator, quickly called her husband asking for the Air Station operations officer’s phone number. Her thought was if a C-130 Hercules aircraft was going to Anchorage anyway, maybe they could help this family out.

Frustration abounds
As Jessica heard the airport announce that flights were canceled, she became frustrated.

“When the last flight was canceled, I just kind of lost it,” said Jessica. “I had no glimmer of hope and didn’t know what to do.”

Jessica knew if they didn’t get out of Kodiak soon, she wouldn’t get Madisyn to the next bone and sarcoma clinic appointment and that would only put things behind. Plus, Jessica and Madisyn had a spot reserved at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle. The Ronald McDonald House had been holding a spot for them for a few days. However, if they did not arrive that night they could possibly lose their spot on the long waiting list.

The Ronald McDonald Houses is a non-profit organization offering families a way to stay together, in proximity to the treatment hospital, and be comfortable and cared for during an extended stay.

A glimmer of hope
Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Deer, operations officer for Air Station Kodiak, was sitting in his office tending to work like normal. His personal cell phone rang and on the other end was Henderson.

She described Jessica and Madisyn’s situation to Deer. Unfortunately, the air station didn’t have a C-130 going directly to Anchorage. The last C-130 to take off was going to St. Paul.

Deer explained to Henderson if a person had a medical condition the Coast Guard might be able to help. A Coast Guard flight surgeon would need to deem the condition a medical emergency but since he wasn’t a flight surgeon, he wasn’t able to make that call.

Henderson understood what Deer was trying to say. She told Jessica the Coast Guard might be able to help them get off the island and should call her local doctor and have that doctor call the Coast Guard flight surgeon to discuss the severity of Madisyn’s cancer.

“Air Station Kodiak’s flight surgeon spoke with the young girl’s local doctor, then called the Coast Guard’s Seventeenth District Command Center watchstanders,” said Deer. “Through the medical conduit, it was determined this was an emergency.”

Back at the airport, Jessica came running up to Henderson and gave her a huge hug. Jessica explained Deer was on his way to pick her and Madisyn up to take them to the Coast Guard base for a flight off the island.

It happened so fast
Deer knew if he was going to get Jessica and Madisyn to the C-130 on time he needed to drive his personal vehicle. He asked Petty Officer 1st Class Lonnie Henderson, avionics electrical technician at Air Station Kodiak, to come along since it was his wife who called asking for help.

“The St. Paul flight was scheduled to take off at 9:30 a.m.,” said Deer. “It was getting close to 9:15 a.m. I was able to delay the flight for one hour.”

Deer and Lonnie arrived at Kodiak airport and helped Jessica and Madisyn into the car. Deer said Madisyn’s grandfather shook his hand and said thank you over and over again.

“It was then that it really tugged at my heart strings,” said Deer. “At that point, it went from being professional to personal. But I had to stay professional. My main concern was to get them to the air station safely, get them on the plane and off to Anchorage.”

Once at the C-130, Jessica and Madisyn boarded the aircraft and waited for take off. They had been trying to get this flight commercially for several days. The aircrew provided them a boxed lunch and both were able to sit in the cockpit for about 30 minutes talking and listening to the aircrew on headsets.

When the C-130 arrived in Anchorage at Kulis Air National Guard Base, an air national guardsman was waiting for Jessica and Madisyn in a truck ready to transport them to the commercial airport.

“If it wasn’t for the Coast Guard, I don’t know when we would have been able to get out of Kodiak,” said Jessica. “I don’t know how to thank them enough.”

When Jessica heard the Coast Guard was able to fly her and Madisyn to Anchorage, she quickly called the Ronald McDonald House to let them know she was on the way.

“The security guards met us at the Ronald McDonald House late that night,” said Jessica. “Madisyn had a biopsy Oct. 16, and started chemotherapy the following Wednesday.”

Madisyn must go through five days of chemotherapy at the Children’s Hospital in Seattle then stay at the Ronald McDonald House for 10 days. She will endure this rotation for up to 12 months. After 12 weeks of chemotherapy, she’ll have another biopsy to see if the tumor has shrunk.

“Madisyn misses Kodiak and her brother so much,” said Jessica. “It’s going to be a long hard journey for us. We’ve talked about the possibility of her losing her hair and she’s requested to have princess wigs so she can decide what princess she wants to be each day.”

Helping others
Even though Madisyn is currently undergoing chemotherapy and away from her family and friends in Kodiak, the Coast Guard was able to get her and her mother off the island.

“This is what the Coast Guard is supposed to do,” said Henderson. “This is why I joined, to help people. It is really awesome we were able to help this family in their time of need.”

“Amanda gave me a glimmer of hope that turned into us getting to Anchorage and onto Seattle,” said Jessica. “We call her our guardian angel.”

The course of events that led Jessica and Madisyn to the C-130 flight that October morning could be called coincidence or fate.

“What are the odds that Jessica was at the airport the same day I was,” said Henderson. “Just what are the odds that I was outside and my friend was outside at the same time? Just what are the odds? God has a plan for everybody and everything is lined up. This was supposed to happen the way it did. It’s good stuff.”

Editors Note: Current information about Madisyn can be found at Jessica wishes to express her sincere thanks to the Coast Guard members who helped them off Kodiak. Words cannot express her gratitude and she doesn’t know how to thank Amanda Henderson for her generosity and care.

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