Humans of Calvert County, Sarah Merranko & Anita Santoyo

“I describe everything before it happened as if we were living in a snowglobe. Everything was picture perfect, and then one day someone grabbed that snowglobe off the shelf and shook it up. All the pieces were still there, but nothing landed in the same spot.

Dave served 24 years in the Air Force and he always dreamed about flying Air Force One. There are only eight pilots that fly Air Force One, and one of those individuals is named as the Presidential pilot and is the commander of the unit. In that job, they also oversee 400 people in that unit that is known as the “PAG”, the Presidential Airlift Group.

There are two squadrons within that group: PLS-Presidential Logistics Squadron and the PAS-Presidential Airlift Squadron. He was originally hired in 2007 to be the Squadron Commander for the PAS and to be one of the eight pilots for Air Force One. There were many competent pilots in the Air Force that could fly Air Force One, but all the stars have to line-up.

When you get hired for Air Force One they put so much training in you that it’s one of the only pilot billets that the Air Force cannot move you out of you, instead you have to volunteer to leave that position. So most of the pilots in that unit stay until they retire. So first there are only eight spots, then you have to wait for someone who is going to retire, then you have to be the person that they select to fill that position, and your current commander has to be willing to release you. So for Dave, this truly was like winning the lottery. It was always his dream, but he really never thought it would happen. But in July 2007 he was hired to fly Air Force One and be the Commander of the Presidential Airlift Squadron.

He was in that position for two years as a line pilot, and eventually became the Deputy Commander of the group, and in February of 2014, President Obama selected him as the 14th Presidential Pilot of the United States for Air Force One, and he became Commander of the Presidential Airlift Group.

Fast forward several months later, Dave is living his ultimate dream. On May 15, 2014, it was a normal Saturday morning. He had gone to pick up our oldest daughter from a lock-in at our church and they went to Starbucks to get some coffee, and then they came home. Shortly after, he noticed his ankle was twitching and at the time we thought it was his sciatic nerve, which is very common for pilots due to the amount of the time they spend sitting. So he came over to me and he held his ankle out and he said, ‘Look, this is what it is doing, isn’t it weird?’ and I responded with, ‘Does it hurt?’ Just as I said that he grabbed his chest and said, ‘I can’t breathe!’ and I watched what looked like a wave roll up his body with all of his muscles contracting from his ankles to his legs, to his chest. He collapsed into my arms and he had a grand mal seizure. He’s 6’3, 200 lbs, and I did the best I could to lower him to the ground safely and turn him on his side to keep him from aspirating. In the meantime, my oldest daughter ran and called 911.

They took him to Calvert Memorial and they did a CT scan, and the doctor came in and looked at me, and looked at him, and said, ‘There is a 4 cm mass in your front left lobe, and MedStar will be in 12 minutes.’ They helicoptered him up to Walter Reed and they confirmed by the scans that he had this mass. At that point, the neurosurgeon came in and told me it could be one of the following: a virus, a parasite, a metastasized cancer, or it could be a glioblastoma. I asked him, ‘What do you think it is?’ and he came back with, ‘Do you really want to know? I will always be honest with you, but I will only tell you what you are ready to hear. So if you don’t want to hear it, don’t ask the question.’ I promised him that I wouldn’t go on Google and freak myself out, but I did want to hear what his opinion was. That’s when he said, ‘I think it’s glioblastoma primary brain cancer.’ After 9 hours of brain surgery, I asked the surgeon if it was glioblastoma, and confirmed that he believed it was and told me that if it were him he would ‘retire and go start making memories.’ Dave didn’t retire, he was in his dream job, but he couldn’t fly anymore. He did chemo and radiation and was by all accounts in remission from that first surgery until August 2015, when he had another seizure. At that time the scans the detected growth of the tumor once again. He stayed in command until February 2016, and then he stepped down.

In August that year, he entered Hospice, and in November 2016 he passed away. All told, it was 28 months, which far surpassed the 14 months they thought we would have with him. By all accounts, he far exceeded what anyone had expected.

I use that snowglobe analogy a lot. Someone shook up our snowglobe, and all of our pieces are still there: friends, military family, support systems, and they have landed in a different place, and we are just exploring this space to find out where it all ended up. I’ve had to raise two teenage girls on my own. I have a girlfriend that coined the term ‘only parent’ versus ‘single parent’. There is this dynamic that when you are a parent, grieving the loss of a spouse, where you are trying to tend to your own grief at the same time you are tending to the grief of your children. It adds a layer of complexity.

There are times that are very lonely and I don’t mean that in the sense of being alone, but more like no one else understands what you are going through. The further away from his death that we get, my impression is that more people feel that we should be moving on. There are moments you don’t think of as triggers beforehand, and then you are scrambling to deal with them. And your peer group, your friends, don’t understand that, and they shouldn’t, but it’s hard walking that tightrope-supporting your child, tending to your own broken soul, and not putting that on your friends. I realize they haven’t walked this journey so they won’t have it at the forefront of their minds.

June 6th is my daughter’s graduation from Huntingtown. It’s a big milestone, and her dad won’t be there. It’s supposed to be a really happy occasion and celebration, but there is an underlying sadness for us. We as a family understand that, but sometimes that is forgotten by others who are able to focus on the joy of the present.

As difficult as life has been, I feel very blessed. I feel blessed for all the support that we have received from the county, and just the opportunities the girls and I have had. I was able to start my own business with Wear Your Spirit Warehouse, which has been so well received in the county. I have two amazing daughters. My daughter who is a senior in high school who was in 7th grade when her dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma and we spend months and months in the hospital and he had four surgeries, she really got interested in medicine. And ultimately, at a very young age, she decided that she would be the one to find the cure for glioblastoma one day.

Life has changed a lot, and it has also remained so much the same. I would say we are moving forward, but not moving on.”

David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...