Kyle Nardon nearly landed an elite position as a drone pilot for the U.S. Air Force – a step away from his dream job of flying traditional planes. But an unlikely medical discovery has put that dream on hold.
In September, the 22-year-old finance student and ROTC cadet traveled from Washington State University to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where he underwent numerous tests of his physical and mental ability. The competitive program had 126 open slots nationwide, and only one available to WSU cadets.
Nardon was determined to secure that slot and begin drone pilot training in June 2017, two months after graduation. But he had received two concussions in recent years, so Air Force doctors decided to scan his brain for abnormalities.
“It’s not standard procedure to do an MRI,” Nardon said. “They wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to have a seizure while I’m flying a billion-dollar plane.”
On his last day at the base, Nardon sat in a doctor’s office, nervously anticipating the results of the scan. He had a hunch something was wrong: The doctor wouldn’t break any news until a colonel arrived to join the discussion.
Finally, the doctor pulled up some images on a computer screen, “and I could see it immediately,” Nardon said. Just in front of his brain stem was a tiny glowing speck, “like a piece of corn,” he said.
It’s a relatively rare kind of tumor called an ependymoma. Among adults, ependymomas account for only 2 percent to 3 percent of tumors that originate in the central nervous system. They’re more commonly found in babies and children. In the United States, about 200 new cases of ependymoma are diagnosed each year, according to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“You can’t really explain that feeling when someone tells you you have a brain tumor,” Nardon said. “You hear about it in the movies and stuff, and it’s never good.”
Nardon was born in Brazil and raised in Washington and California. His mother, Taryn Stratton, was born in the United Kingdom, and Nardon was granted British citizenship under that country’s laws. He renounced his citizenship in Brazil and the United Kingdom in order to join the Air Force.
Stratton lives in California and said she’ll do “whatever it takes” to help her son. She’s read books on cancer treatment, set up a GoFundMe campaign to help pay his medical bills and shopped around for the best brain surgeon in Washington. They recently met with a surgeon from Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, and she’s moving to nearby Sammamish to live with her son while he recovers from his upcoming treatment.
Nardon is a member of a WSU fraternity and has received an outpouring of support. The GoFundMe campaign has $18,150, cancer survivors have offered him advice on the healing process, and a neighboring sorority gave him a giant card and a basket of candy. In one of the bigger acts of generosity, a rival fraternity dropped off a $1,000 check in his name.
“It’s amazing how many people came together on this,” Stratton said.
Nardon wants to undergo surgery in mid-December so he can recover during winter break and start classes again in the spring. But he’s nervous. With the tumor so close to his brain stem, the slightest miscue during surgery can be fatal.
More than anything, Nardon is disappointed he won’t be flying planes anytime soon. The Air Force won’t commission him until he’s made a full recovery.
His superior in the ROTC, Col. Glen Downing, noted there was a slim chance of spotting the tumor at such an early stage. Ependymomas can grow as large as a baseball.
“There is a silver lining,” Downing said. “If we hadn’t gone through this process, if it weren’t for the quality of that medical screening, this is a tumor that might never have been caught.”
Downing said Nardon wasn’t always a model cadet, but he now serves as a mentor for freshmen and sophomores joining the ROTC.
“He’s a solid student,” Downing said. “And he’s improved the longer he’s been in school.”
Nardon said he has wanted to fly planes since he was 4, when he and his sister took a commercial flight to Brazil to visit their grandmother. He said his passion was reaffirmed at the base in Ohio, where he got to sit in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet.
“My plan was to have an Air Force job, and I’m going to do it,” he said. “That’s my promise to myself.”
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