TRUE GRIT - Instructor pilot conquers life-threatening tumor

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
With every step, Lt. Col. John Turnipseed's legs burned so badly it felt as though he was turning into a human torch. Had someone offered him a lounge chair and a cold drink right then, his exhausted brain and body might have flirted with the idea. And who could blame him? He'd just biked 26 miles over some rough terrain, ran another seven miles in sweltering heat, and paddled two miles against the wind in a raft.

But you'd have to know his heart to understand why he would, without a doubt, push himself to complete that last grueling 400 strides to the finish line.

Turnipseed is no quitter.

The colonel and the other three members of the "Big Cat" team he captained finished second in the extreme team category of the Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, 5th Annual Adventure Race April 18 with a time of 4:14:47. They trained hard for months to safely ready themselves for this challenge. But Turnipseed has endured tougher battles.

Four years ago, he was fighting for his life.

A T-6 Texan II instructor pilot and the director of operations for the 85th Flying Training Squadron at Laughlin, doctors diagnosed Turnipseed with a rare disease called pheochromocytomas when he was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. By the time he was medically evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington D.C., in July 2005, he had a golf ball-sized tumor on his adrenal gland.

"The tumor would cause me to get an adrenaline rush, but not in a good way," Turnipseed said. "My blood pressure would double to twice the norm for hours at a time on some days. Not fun. I was thinking, 'What's wrong with me?' "

Indeed, classic symptoms of pheochromocytomas -- or pheos for short -- are recurring episodes of increased blood pressure, a racing heart, severe headaches, excessive sweating and anxiety that can create feelings of impending death, according to Dr. James Norman, a world renowned surgeon and an authority on the disease.

Norman said pheos is difficult to detect, and a lot of people are diagnosed with it too late -- as in during autopsies.

Turnipseed pointed out that it is a good idea for anyone starting an exercise program to get a physician's OK.

"If military doctors hadn't discovered this disease in me, my blood pressure might have become so intense that it would have popped a blood vessel in my head, which would have caused a stroke and probably death," said the 41-year-old Turnipseed. "I'm lucky to be alive."

After surgery to remove the deadly tumor, the St. Louis, Mo., native's health improved quickly and dramatically.

With his body feeling good, he had a new lease on life. He started exercising every day and following a strict routine that included a warm-up, cool-down and stretching to prevent injury to his limbs. As he grew stronger, he began swimming, biking and running. By the time he was in pilot instructor training at Randolph AFB, Texas, he'd been bitten by the triathlon bug.

Even with the demands of his job and spending quality time with his wife and four young children, he still manages to race in nearly one triathlon per month. Not to mention, he has enough 5K T-shirts to fill a small walk-in closet.

So participating in Laughlin's Adventure Race was a no-brainer. Some 400 people challenged themselves on the physically demanding 35-mile course, which started on base and ended at Laughlin's Southwinds Marina on Lake Amistad. More than 50 teams from four different bases joined the fray, with 13 extreme teams -- those in which all four participants had to bike, run and raft the entire course without substitution.

Turnipseed, with an obvious appreciation for life, trains hard to safely tackle the rigors of a triathlon or adventure race. He also ensures he stays well-hydrated and uses a lot of sun block to avoid getting crispy. And he knows the symptoms of heat stress and to stay within his limits. But in addition to safety, he also has another motivation for his strict regimen ... his students.

"Most of the pilots I train are nearly half my age," he said. "So, really, I'm an old man to them. I think it's important to show them that here I am in the twilight of my career and I am still working out, eating right and maintaining a (high) level of fitness."

He says this attitude is right in line with the fitness culture the Air Force is trying so hard to establish.

"In this expeditionary era, physical fitness is a priority," Turnipseed said. "You might be called on to go outside the wire or do a variety of tasks inside the wire that are physically intensive. We can't have people getting injured, passing out and having heart attacks -- especially in the hot environments where we always seem to go. You can't afford to be completely out of shape."