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Kodiak resident Madisyn Sickafoose 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.
Her mother Jessica Gardner, a single mother of two, was working full-time at the Kodiak Island Housing Authority when their world came to a screeching halt. One day, Sickafoose was playing and thought she might have a broken arm.
"In August, Sickafoose fell off the trampoline and her left arm swelled up," Gardner said. "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."
But between August and early October, Gardner took Sickafoose several times to the doctor, and each time the doctor told her it wasn't broken and should heal.
Finally, on Oct. 5, Gardner requested an X-ray. Results in hand, the doctor took Gardner and her daughter to radiology and showed them the tumor inside Sickafoose's arm. The Kodiak doctors had spoke to a pediatric oncologist in Seattle, and it was determined the two should get to Seattle as soon as possible.
Sickafoose was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma - a rare disease in which cancer cells are found in the bone or soft tissue.
Sickafoose and her mother were struck with fear and uncertainty. Gardner 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. Gardner and Sickafoose were at the airport trying to get another flight.
"We were at the airport the whole time," Gardner said. "We were hoping and praying one flight would get in."
CANCELLATION and FRUSTRATION
Unfortunately, flights from Kodiak on Oct. 13 were cancelled due to thick fog. Gardner was understandably frustrated.
"I just kind of lost it," Gardner said. "I had no glimmer of hope and didn't know what to do."
Gardner knew if they didn't get out of Kodiak soon, she wouldn't get Sickafoose to the next bone and sarcoma clinic appointment, and that would only put things behind. Plus, Gardner and Sickafoose 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.
Luckily, Lt. Amanda Henderson, Coast Guard finance officer at Base Support Unit in Kodiak, also was waiting for a commercial flight in Kodiak. 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 cancelled.
"For some reason, I stuck around to see if the second flight was going to be cancelled," she said. "Once they announced the flight into Kodiak was cancelled, 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.
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 Sickafoose'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 that 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 told Gardner 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 Sickafoose's cancer.
"Air Station Kodiak's flight surgeon spoke with the young girl's local doctor, then called the Coast Guard's 17th District Command Center watchstanders," Deer said. "Through the medical conduit, it was determined this was an emergency."
Back at the airport, Gardner came running up to Henderson and gave her a hug. Gardner explained Deer was on his way to pick her and Sickafoose 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 Gardner and Sickafoose 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.," Deer said. "It was getting close to 9:15 a.m. I was able to delay the flight for one hour."
Deer and Lonnie Henderson arrived at Kodiak airport and helped Gardner and Sickafoose into the car. Sickafoose's grandfather shook Deer's hand and said thank you over and over again.
"It was then that it really tugged at my heart strings," Deer said. "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, Gardner and Sickafoose 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 Gardner and Sickafoose 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," Gardner said. "I don't know how to thank them enough."
Sickafoose had a biopsy Oct. 16, and started chemotherapy the following Wednesday. Sickafoose 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," her mother said. "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."
Even though Sickafoose 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," Amanda Henderson said. "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," Gardner said. "We call her our guardian angel."
The course of events that led Gardner and Sickafoose to the C-130 flight that October morning could be called coincidence or fate. "What are the odds that Gardner was at the airport the same day I was," Amanda Henderson said. "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."
Charly Hengen is petty officer 3rd class with the U.S. Coast Guard in Kodiak. Updated information about Sickafoose Sickafoose can be found at www.caringbridge.org/visit/sickafoosesickafoose. Her mother Jessica Gardner 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.