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Pilot battles brain cancer, recovery with faith

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

Walking into his backyard after an Easter egg hunt Capt. Hunter Barnhill’s hand formed a fist, holding itself with incredible and uncontrollable strength, he attempted to spread his fingers, but instead consciously fell to the ground before his friends and his own 2-year-old son, Nolan, looked onto him confused.

Unable to control his own body he knew what was occurring, his friends came to his aid and helped him sit down calmly speaking to him; and as quickly as it had started the seizure ended.

“It was more frustrating than painful,” said Hunter, a 37th Flying Training Squadron instructor.

Hunter, regaining control of his body found himself surrounded by the same friends who had just helped him. Meanwhile his wife, Crystal, stepped out and was startled at the strange sight, she knew something was off.

After Easter Sunday in 2017 the Barnhill’s lives would change forever and Hunter would face a world full of unknowns, recalled the husband and wife at their dinner table.

He went to the flight doctor who sent him to Baptist Memorial Hospital for a MRI where the doctors found a brain tumor.

“It was kind of surreal,” Crystal said. “It was more like a bad dream, I felt like I was there and I knew it was going on but it didn’t seem real. He had come home and we ran over to the truck and I saw a pamphlet about stress in the workplace and thought that must have been it. We were standing right at the bar in our kitchen when he told me it was a brain tumor.”

In order to get surgery he had to go to University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) Hospital where he was wheeled around in a wheelchair, and as he told it, felt some of the weight of the situation coming into fruition.

At the same time he was receiving photo messages from fellow instructor pilots wearing bandanas made for him, which helped take his mind off of the looming surgical procedure.

“It hit my family close to home,” said Maj. Jesse Rosal, 14th Flying Training Wing T-6 Texan II Flight Safety Officer. “Through him he made our faith stronger, it encouraged us and all the folks we knew to stay motivated and it was a reminder at how fragile life can be. We tried to take his mind off things as much as we could by wearing the bandanas and taking silly photos before he went into surgery.”

Because of his young age and good health the doctors were able to be aggressive throughout Hunter’s surgery. The intense nature of the surgery caused him to suffer from post-operative Supplementary Motor Area Syndrome.

SMA hit hard, rendering him unable to speak and paralyzed his right side. He participated in physical and speech therapy for three months and worked to gain his abilities to sit up, walk, run and speak as he had done only weeks ago.

 “It was very shocking to go from healthy with consistently excellent scores on my [physical fitness assessments] to no longer flying, to having cancer, to having no idea what my future was,” Hunter said. “It was from one end of the spectrum to the other in an instant.”

Traumatic experiences can affect people in many ways. Recovering from an event such as SMA, after surgery which removed over 90 percent of a brain tumor, can be difficult. Hunter chose to lean into his spirituality throughout the months following the surgery.

“I’m a man of faith. I stand on the fact that God made a promise with me and we can stand on that promise,” Hunter said.

During his healing process he said he read scriptures and worked on memorizing passages to help his mind physically and mentally recover.

Crystal said friends and family also sent their own favorite passages of the Bible to show their support.

“Since the surgery I have more scriptures memorized and my prayer life has improved,” Hunter said.

Crystal agreed scripture and faith played a large part in the ability to keep a positive attitude, and also said Hunter had been calm and optimistic from the start, which helps Nolan see a healthy way to approach an event such as this.

“Hunter really set the tone for the family, and our slogan from the start was ‘Fights On’ because it was a fight but we would get through it,” Crystal said. “It was a struggle to be a wife and a mom at the same time because my husband needed me and so did my son.”

Loud noises and the constant energy of their 2 year old was hard on Hunter’s head, and he had almost no ability to move or play with his son either. He said he remembered how his wife had to nurture him because his needs were basic and just as consistent.

For a few weeks after the surgery it was the hardest time, he recalled having no motivation to even walk roughly 80 feet from his couch to his backyard he watched TV and read all day and the blinds were closed.

“There was a fine line of respecting his recovery but also making sure he wasn’t falling into a slump,” Crystal said. “Luckily, a week or two after we left the hospital he got up and even though he wasn’t back to normal he was better.”

After delving into their faith, Hunter and his wife said they have grown and learned from this experience as a family.

Hunter is hopeful to make a full recovery and continue to serve as a pilot in the Air Force that has given them so much. During his recovery, fellow Airmen from his squadron and Columbus Air Force Base have helped the family tremendously.

Rosal was one of the many Team BLAZE members who visited the Barnhill family and spent a lot of time helping them cook, stay active and practice their faith. He said it was a team effort and people from all over the 14th FTW provided great support to their family friends by any means they could.

“I have more opportunities with brain cancer than before my cancer diagnosis. If you asked me last year how I would feel not being able to fly, I would have told you that I’d be devastated,” Hunter said. “Sure it gets tough hearing the aircraft, but I do believe God instilled in me a passion for aviation and I don’t think He has given up on me or my passion.”

As a former B-52H pilot and third generation bomber pilot aviation has been in his blood. Hunter flew his first aircraft by himself before he had earned his driver’s license, and that passion is still there. He said he is looking forward to the day he sits back inside of another cockpit.

Lately Hunter said he has been thankful for everything he has been given through his family, friends and most importantly his faith.

He is currently preparing to attend the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program (AFW2) Trials at Nellis AFB, Nevada, where he will compete in multiple events to earn a spot in the Department of Defense’s Warrior Games and possibly the Invictus Games. The athletes are some of the best disabled athletes the DOD has to offer, and show the strength, determination and resiliency of the veterans across the military. 

Every three months he receives an MRI from the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital, and his flying status and ability to serve as an IP will be determined in the future by the Medical-Evaluation Board.

“Your disability does not have to be limiting. I want you to know you are stronger than you think you are,” he said. “Feel the breath in your lungs, you’re still here for a good reason and don’t lose sight of whatever faith is giving you that good reason.”

Editor’s note: The U.S. Air Force does not endorse any particular religion. The Air Force highly values each person's right to observe the tenets of his or her respective religion or to observe no religion at all.