By Senior Airman Regina Edwards
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
In 1991, he was on top of the world, in the prime of his life and the healthiest he’d ever been.
Then 24-year-old “Buck” Sgt. Jimmy Ku, a crew chief stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, was six years into his Air Force career as well as a year into his marriage and new role as stepfather to two daughters. He woke up one October morning with a severe pain on the right side of his groin that changed his life as he knew it.
“It felt like I’d been kicked in the groin,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jimmy Ku, 19th Maintenance Group superintendent.
At first, doctors diagnosed his pain as an infection. For three weeks they treated it as such, and for three weeks there was no response.
An ultrasound located masses on both the right and left side of his groin area, and though doctors assured Ku that most likely it would be benign, it wasn’t.
A biopsy revealed that Ku had testicular cancer.
It was so bad that the doctors stated they didn’t have to send it to pathology to identify it, although they did anyway.
With his wife, Annette, by his side, Ku had a bilateral radical orchiectomy in November. It not only removed both testicles, it took away his right and chance to have children of his own.
“I was in shock,” he said. “I was in disbelief. It didn’t really sink in until the doctor said I may have to receive testosterone treatments for the rest of my life, and I will never be able to have kids. It was a low blow. I mean, I was 24; I had just moved to Florida. I was at the healthiest point of my life, so I thought, and then my world came crashing down with that news.”
After more tests in December, Ku and his team of doctors discovered that his cancer, embryonal carcinoma, had spread, and there was only a 40 percent chance of him surviving. He was immediately sent to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, his hometown, for chemotherapy.
Hearing those words, Ku said he went to a very low and dark place. A man who was once strong in his faith was now questioning God, asking the question most people ask when impossible circumstances occur: why me?
For the next five months, the new normal for Ku was three cycles of chemo which entailed: long days of treatment, the breakdown of his immune system, the loss of his hair as well as his will to go on. His cancer was so aggressive, that he received the amount of chemo in a week that others would receive in a month.
“It was tough,” Ku said, “but family, friends and my local childhood church were very supportive. Even the hospital was supportive; they offered a cancer survivor support group.”
But Ku wanted nothing to do with it. He was still bitter. He was still angry. He was done.
“To me, at the time, I just wasn’t in that right mind set to cope with it,” he said. “I didn’t want to listen to people tell me, ‘we support you,’ because even though I knew other people were going through cancer and chemo, none of them knew what I was going through.”
After weeks of sulking, Ku received a tiny unexpected gift that shined a bright light into his darkness.
“It was the second cycle that I was in, and my wife was staying at the Fisher House, which is something like the Ronald McDonald House,” Ku said. “She was walking down the hall to go to the kitchen, and she saw this little girl. She was 3 years old, dragging her IV tree down the hall. She asked my wife, ‘do you have a sick little girl?’ My wife said, ‘No. It’s my husband that’s sick.’”
The girl asked if she could play with her husband, so the next day, Annette proposed a play date with her husband and this little girl.
At first, Ku was unmoved in his despair. Entertaining a toddler was absolutely not his idea of therapy or relaxation at the time. Ironically, in his refusal to play, Ku displayed his own form of a temper tantrum.
Despite his objections, she showed up anyway, right before Ku had to leave for chemo. She refused to take no for an answer. The innocence in her raspy, quiet voice persuaded Ku to let his guard down.
She came in with her IV tree and little satchel bag, holding coloring books and crayons, climbed up on Ku’s bed and changed his life forever.
Telling the story now, Ku stared off into nothing as if he was transported back in that moment. He took a long, deep breath as he teared up and whispered, “She just wanted to color and play.”
“And as we were doing that,” he said, “it slapped me in the face. I’d been a brat and idiot all this time. This little girl didn’t know any different; this was life to her. I’ve lived a full life up until now, and I’m mad at the world because this happened to me. She was born with this. And she was living life every day to the fullest, coloring with not a care in the world. There was my resilience; it hit me in the face right then and there and said, Jimmy Ku, you need to wake up; you need to grow up. She was the adult; I was the spoiled little kid.”
That girl walked out of his room that day, and he never saw her again. But what she left behind was something greater than some pictures to hang on the wall. Ku had a new outlook on everything in his life. He was changed inwardly and began to show it outwardly. Not only did Ku attend the support groups, he spoke there, telling others that faith and a positive attitude will go a long way.
Trying to stop tears from falling down his face, he mustered the words, “That little girl saved my life. I would have stayed in that dark time if she hadn’t basically told me to shut up and color, handed me the crayons and ultimately altered my attitude. It helped me. It helped me a lot. Seeing her carry on taught me that there’s more to life. I saw how positive she was, and I tried to be that going forward.”
At the end of his chemotherapy, Ku became a part of that 40 percent and was cancer free.
“I went back to Patrick [AFB] in May 1992 and was placed on temporary disability,” he said. “Basically it was kind of like me being forced to medically retire. I didn’t want to retire, so I fought it. After one year and another medical evaluation, I was placed back on active status.”
Ku said he could not be more appreciative of how the Air Force took care of him.
“I’m very fortunate that I was able to overcome all of this adversity and enjoy life with a different perspective, while serving my country. I never imagined while going through all of this that I’d be where I am today. I wasn’t given a high probability of beating the cancer, so the thought of eventually making Chief certainly wasn’t in my mind then. I was fortunate to have the support of my family, specifically my wife, great supervisors and leadership throughout the illness as well as after. The Air Force has been extremely good to me and my family.”
Today, Ku said he is the kind of person that is free spirited, has fun but does his job and doesn’t take everything so seriously. He and his wife of 25 years are now grandparents, and Ku will be retiring this summer from a successful 30-year military career. He still has to have tests run every five years, but it doesn’t stop him from cherishing even the littlest moments in his life.
“Nothing is that serious or that important. I live life in a more relaxed way. I don’t sweat the small things because of what I’ve been through and what I saw others go through. Some people don’t make it. But I did, and I’m grateful.”
A 3-year-old girl, also suffering from cancer came into Ku’s life, and with one day and a few moments of play time, shook his world and gave him a gift that saved his life: color.