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Pilot Flying High After Downing Foe: Leukemia

December 23, 1987|United Press International

MARCH AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — When Maj. Thomas Peter was diagnosed as having leukemia 18 months ago, he retired his Air Force wings and was given no more than three years to live.

But on Tuesday, after undergoing delicate bone marrow transplant surgery and winning reinstatement to the Air Force, the flight instructor was once again at the controls of a jet.

The 36-year-old pilot's ordeal began in May, 1986, when he went in for a routine flight physical.

"Finding out I had chronic myelogenous leukemia was a tremendous shock," said Peter, who is stationed at this Riverside County base. "You always think things like this happen to the other guy. It's a great surprise when it happens to you."

Doctors told Peter he had six months to three years to live. But the resolute major decided to "bet 35 years of my life on 35 more" by undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

Peter, however, not only wanted to conquer the cancer that threatened his life; he also wanted to remain on active duty.

"Flying, for a person like me, is everything," Peter said.

However, the Air Force was not equipped to perform the bone marrow transplant, and it was decided that it was in Peter's best interest to issue him a medical retirement as of June 2, 1986, said Air Force Sgt. Rich Ray.

The next month, Peter entered the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, his hometown.

Doctors at the medical center were able to find a tissue match--critical for the success of bone marrow transplants--in Peter's 9-year-old sister. Despite the transplant, Peter was initially given only a 40% chance of survival.

But 71 days after being admitted to the hospital, Peter was told he was technically cured. He now has about a 10% chance of ever getting leukemia again, Air Force doctors said.

With leukemia beaten, Peter began his battle to regain his post.

"Before the operation I set three goals for myself," Peter said: "Health, family and flying."

With that in mind, he applied for active duty in November, 1986. After an extensive medical evaluation, the Air Force recommended his return. Peter was returned to duty in September and regained his flying status in November.

"Something like this just makes you realize how lucky you really are," Peter said. "There is no deeper appreciation for life until the chance of losing it is real."

Peter's flight Tuesday morning aboard a KC-10 extender, a modified DC-10 used for refueling fighter jets, went off without a hitch. "It was really great to see him flying again," Ray said.

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