Year of the Pathfinder: Air Force retiree shines through adversity

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jennifer Zima
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Carl Joseph “CJ” Spatz III, a retired air traffic controller and facility manager was diagnosed with a brain tumor March 25, 2019.

CJ and his wife, Angela Spatz, 423rd Force Support Squadron work and family life consultant, were expecting their first baby when they received the news.

“His attitude had changed, he was short-tempered and extremely forgetful,” said Angela. “He was calling things the wrong names. We were watching TV, and he was telling me how great the “burberries” looked. I was like, ‘what the heck is a “burberry?”’ They were cupcakes. We would have a discussion, and literarily not even ten minutes later it was like we didn’t even have that discussion.”

CJ began experiencing debilitating headaches and started seeing black dots. He and Angela visited the medical facilities at RAF Alconbury and RAF Lakenheath. He received memory tests and brain scans to discover the cause. The results came back in a week – a brain tumor.

“With my 25 years in the Air Force, you go through some of these tough times, but one of the toughest things that happened to me was after I got out of the Air Force,” said CJ. “With my career in the Air Force and being deployed to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, you feel scared, but I never felt that I was encountering something as dangerous as something that was going to take my life, as when I found out about the tumor.”

Doctors were not sure if a surgery would be possible. The medical team at Alconbury referred him to a neurosurgeon in Cambridge. The tumor was approximately 5.6 cm, the size of a racket ball, with tentacles wrapped around CJ’s left optic nerve and carotid artery, affecting his vision and applying pressure on his artery that could have caused a stroke.

“I was 25 weeks pregnant and it was unbelievable to hear this news that he could be dying,” said Angela. “We were told it was probably inoperable. At that moment we were expecting the worst.”

Angela recalled a conversation they had with the neurosurgeon.

“My husband asked him, ‘what is the worst-case scenario?’” said Angela. “The neurosurgeon said, ‘I go in there, we can’t get it out, it’s cancerous. But even if we can get it out, the worst case is you can have a stroke, you could be paralyzed, you could be blind, you will have seizures and you will never be able to drive again.’ Then my husband said, ‘what is the best-case scenario?’ And the doctor said, ‘the best-case scenario is we get it all out, it’s not cancerous, you have the biggest black eye you’ve ever had and you walk out of the hospital.’ And my husband said, ‘I’m walking out of that hospital.’”

CJ knew about the potential danger of the surgery, but he stayed optimistic.

“There’s tough times for people in the military, and it’s not always the easiest, but being resilient really helped me get through this situation,” said CJ. “I wanted to be here as the father. I think that’s what helped me be as resilient and as tough. What helped me was thinking about our future, and about our little Molly coming along.”

On April 5, 2019, CJ went into a ten-hour surgery. After the operation, the surgeon shared the results with Angela.

“The doctor found us, and he told us that he was able to get the entire tumor out,” said Angela. “He said, ‘I’m exhausted, that was a long surgery! The tumor was really big.’ The doctor put a hand on my belly, and he said, ‘Molly will have a daddy now.’”

Angela’s work family supported the Spatz during their medical journey by organizing meal trains and checking on their well-being. The medical team promptly referred CJ for medical tests and to facilities that could perform the surgery. Legal support helped him organize his affairs before the surgery. Angela’s supervisor and coworkers sat with her in the hospital and shared the tears and joy of CJ’s recovery.

“Monday morning, he walked out of that hospital with the biggest black eye I’ve ever seen,” said Angela. “He looked like a crazy man! He had 40-some staples in his head. Half his head was shaved. And he was walking out of that hospital with his University of Alabama T-shirt, owning it, and he did it!”

Despite the all the risks, CJ fully recovered from the operation.

“Here I am today, a year and a half after the surgery," said CJ. "We have a beautiful little girl, she’s fourteen months, and Angela’s doing really well. Having a spouse and family who really care, that’s what helps you succeed in these types of things. They’re the ones who are going to support you and they make you say, ‘I got to do this for my family.’ I feel so lucky and I’m so grateful for how everything turned out.”

Angela’s eyes glistened as she spoke about her husband.

“He has this inner light about him that just shines out,” she said. “They say men can’t be sunshining, but that man has got a light that you cannot dim. Even at the scariest moment of his life, he’s still shining through. That’s why he’s got the most grit and the most umph in his pinkie that I have ever seen, or I have in my entire body. That is the man.”