Keesler couple overwhelmed by support from friends, strangers
BILOXI, Miss. — Master Sgt. Albert "A.J." Jackson lived an active life. The 36-year-old member of the 335th Training Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base was an avid runner, weight lifter and basketball player and enjoyed nothing more than riding bikes through his neighborhood with his wife, Staff Sgt. Ashley, and children, Parker, 5, and Starling, 3.
That all changed last summer when A.J. was paralyzed. Now, the Jacksons are working toward reclaiming a sense of normalcy they lost.
About a year ago the Jacksons' world changed. Back pain woke A.J. one night. He had worked out during the day and figured it was just an ache. After the pain persisted, A.J. went to the Keesler Medical Center to get checked out.
"We got to the ER and the doctor who was working that day, Dr. (Jennifer) Sexton, recognized the symptoms," he said. "It didn't sound like normal back pain. They did more tests and discovered my ascending aorta was aneurysming and my descending aorta had dissecting. Everything kind of snowballed from there."
A.J. initially took blood pressure medicine for several weeks and was told to take it easy until his first surgery at Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center in January.
"Everything went great with that surgery. I came back home and was going through some rehab and stuff. They did a scan and that's when they realized the rest of my aorta that they didn't replace on the first surgery had began to aneurysm again because of the Marfan syndrome," he said. "That's when we went for the second surgery and had all the complications."
The discovery of Marfan syndrome in March was a surprise considering A.J.'s family had no history of the genetic disorder that affects connective tissue.
During his second surgery in June severe complications arose. A.J. survived, but was paralyzed from the waist down.
"We were totally unprepared for the paralysis," he said. "I was going in for heart surgery and it was a 1-2 percent chance of paralysis -- my lucky number that day."
After spending eight weeks in Houston, A.J. now undergoes physical, occupational and speech therapy three times a week at Ocean Springs' Singing River Neuroscience Center.
"Most of my life revolves around going to physical therapy, said A.J., who added he wouldn't have been able to carry on a normal conversation six or eight weeks ago because one of his vocal cords was paralyzed.
Ashley said there's a small chance her husband of eight years in February could eventually recover if the swelling around his spinal cord -- which is intact -- decreases.
"That could take months to years to go away, and then we just don't know where we'll be after that," A.J. added. "It's really just a matter of letting the swelling go down and seeing how the body reacts."
5K for A.J.
Senior Master Sgt. Jerrod Webb has become a trusted friend of the Jacksons. Webb transferred to Keesler while the Jacksons were in Houston and although he had never met A.J. before he felt obligated to help in anyway he could.
"I kind of felt a kinship to him," said Webb, a fellow weather forecaster. "We originally thought maybe they'd let us help cut the yard or make some meals and just kind of help them out and give them some time back. Ashley is really independent, so she wasn't really interested in us doing that type of stuff. She wanted to do all that on her own. Her mentality was, 'this was the hand we were dealt and you're not always going to be here for us, so I just want to learn to do it myself.'"
Saturday's 5K for A.J. on Keesler was the result of a compromise: A.J. missed biking with his children but couldn't afford the special bike required to accommodate his needs.
When Tania Whitfield heard about A.J., she offered to help purchase an AmTryke therapeutic tricycle -- which can cost upwards of $2,000 -- with the backing of her organization, 1st Ever A.L. 1992 AMBUCS. The grand gesture freed up funds for the Jacksons to make their home more handicap accessible and possibly purchase a customized truck down the line.
As of Thursday, 300 people had committed to the 5K with donations exceeding $11,000 and rising daily.
"This story, how can you hear it and (not get drawn in)?" Webb said. "Two Air Force members married to one another who have two small children. Everything seems to be fine one minute and is 100 percent healthy and then the next, he's paralyzed. That could happen to any one of us."
A.J.'s story went viral once it hit the web and now Fort Bragg and Fort Hood are among the bases holding their own 5ks today in A.J.'s honor.
"I've been in the military for 18 years and been a supervisor for 14 of those years and I have always preached about the Air Force family, the military family and I never really had to rely on it myself until now," A.J. said. "It's very interesting being on the opposite side of the table. It has been amazing, it really has. We couldn't have asked for a better group of people in our lives helping us out. I'm still in awe with just how much this has snowballed and really blown up. We never expected this at all."