Bryan Holm, Air Force Spouse
There is a catchphrase from a popular mid-eighties kid's movie, where Mikey (played by Sean Astin) says “Goonies Never Say Die”. What if there was more to that message. What if “Goonies Never Say Die” is an ethos to live by and a message that all of us need to hear?
Team Holm met 17 years ago while attending the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and knew right away that they were going to get married. Bryan became an Airborne Linguist and Cheryl cross-trained into Intelligence. Since then, Bryan has deployed 10 times. Cheryl has deployed twice and is currently away on a 1-year remote to Korea. They have two children ages 14 and 12.
In June of 2017, just over 6 years ago, their world changed. Bryan was making dinner for the kids when his right arm began to swell and turn purple. He sat down for a second as he saw the swelling begin to go away. It happened again while washing his hair in the shower the next morning. He made Cheryl a promise to go to the doctor and get it checked out. He tried to avoid the doctor's visit as he was terrified to go get seen. This is why being a spouse can be so challenging but also so important. Military members often put their health concerns aside in fear of losing their career. As a spouse, one of the most critical roles is to advocate for your spouse’s health despite the stigma many face.
Bryan recalls “I was so lucky to have her. I did not want to go to the hospital. I kept telling her “I’m good” because he was fearful of the unknown. Many people fear going to the doctor but with the military there are many restrictions and perceptions that just multiply that fear.
As Bryan waited in the Flight Medicine office at Offutt AFB, he was hoping the doctor would just prescribe him some Motrin and water and send him on his way. However, she took one look at him and sent him to the emergency room. A few hours later, the scans confirmed what the doctor (and Cheryl) had feared. He had a large clot in the subclavian vein of his right shoulder.
The doctor’s game plan was to connect him to a clot-killing machine for 24 hours. He was released and sent home and was rushed back to the hospital several times. Multiple procedures later, more time connected to the machine, and several days in the hospital, he was released again. He was referred to a specialist and sent home. An hour later, happy to be back home, he looked at his right arm and it was purple again. They immediately called the doctor that had released him and his response was, he was unaware what to do.
They decided, at the advice of one of his nurses, to head to another hospital in Omaha. They packed up their belongings and headed to the hospital with tears down their faces. Sitting in the Emergency Room, he vividly remembers turning to Cheryl and saying he couldn’t do it again. His new doctor was optimistic he knew what was happening and explained he needed to remove his rib. According to this new doctor, his first rib and clavicle were pinching his subclavian vein and were not allowing blood flow to his arm.
The surgery went well. Bryan woke up alive and on the path to recovery. It looked like things were getting back on track…. until they weren’t. The next 24 hours were rough. His pain continued to climb but he wasn’t being honest with the nurses that came in to check on him. “I’m a 6”, he would reply, but Cheryl wasn’t buying it. Once she tracked down the doctor, she assured her he was fine. But Cheryl is not a quitter. If she thinks something isn’t right, she is going to fight for it until she is blue in the face. After running around the hospital, she finally found the general doctor that checked him into the hospital and explained her concerns. The doctor decided to perform a CT scan and get blood work. In the middle of his CT scan the radiology tech received a phone call about his blood work and pulled him out of the scan. His hemoglobin levels were critically low and if they didn’t do something quick, he could die. Three blood transfusions later, with a chest tube, a collapsed lung, and in extreme pain, he was rushed to surgery. He knew he couldn’t quit on Cheryl and had to fight for his life. After that final surgery, Cheryl was waiting for him and they began a long 10-day process of recovery until he was released to go home.
Through 21 days in the hospital and 7 surgeries, Cheryl stuck with him the whole time. When she finally returned to work, after he was finally released, he sat alone at home wondering what this meant for his military career. He tried to stay positive. So much so that he pretended he had not gone through a near-death experience. He told every doctor that he was doing great and ready to get back to work. Physically that was true. Mentally, however, he was not doing well. During his first follow-up appointment with the original flight doctor that referred him to the emergency room, he began to say “I’m doing great”, but she grabbed his hand and said “Bryan, I can see in your eyes… you are not doing great” He broke down in that room, he cried so hard for what seemed like hours. He shared with her all his fears and hopes, and she provided resources and realistic expectations for his flying career. In the Air Force, people that fly on military aircraft have additional medical requirements and clearances to ensure they can fly safely and continue to perform their inflight duties. Being in a pressurized tube can do strange things to your body and some conditions and medications make it difficult or unsafe to fly.
But first, he needed to address what happened to him emotionally in those 21 days. Looking back he recalls, “That was the most important doctor’s visit in his life… THAT Flight Doc, on THAT day, saved my life.” She saved his life by being a real person and connecting with someone in pain. Two months later, to everyone’s surprise, he flew his first flight back with the Air Force.
Today, Team Holm is facing new hurdles. Cheryl has been away for a 1-year tour overseas while Bryan is holding down the fort as they prepare to PCS to Japan. They see deployments as challenging for both members in different ways. Being deployed can be lonely and you miss your spouse as your support system, but being home can mean you are left to take care of your household by yourself while balancing your career as well. They each have a battle; it just looks different.
Life is hard. No matter what our paths look like, or what our goals are… there are going to be setbacks. One day, we can be making mashed potatoes in the kitchen, thinking about that 500-pound deadlift goal we just crushed, and the next day it can all come crashing down around us. It’s in those moments, when our minds are telling us to give up, or the people around us are telling us it can’t be done, that we have to dig deep and find that thing… the reason we fight. Because Goonies never say Die.