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Guard, Reserve team up to make child "Pilot for a Day"

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Amaani Lyle
  • 459th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs Office
When Michael Ogunjimi was in third grade, he won a regional essay contest with a submission titled "I Love Life and I Want to Live."

Two years later, the 10-year-old Washington, D.C., honor roll student continues to fight every day to make good on his essay's assertion.

Michael is both a Truesdell Elementary School student and a patient at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. On any given day, Michael faces fatigue, discomfort or complications stemming from sickle cell disease, liver enlargement, lung disease and restrictive cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the lower heart chamber walls become too rigid to allow proper blood circulation. On every given day, Michael must twice use a breathing machine to aid in his respiratory function.

Through coordination among the Air Force Reserve Command's 459th Air Refueling Wing, the District of Columbia Air National Guard's 113th Wing and the CNMC, also known as the Children's Hospital, Michael's status temporarily changed from patient to "Pilot for a Day" as part of a program here Oct. 27.

"'Pilot for a Day' has been a dream come true for Michael," said his father, Rev. Stephen Ogunjimi. "This whole experience has had such a positive impact on his healing process."

"Pilot for a Day" or "P4D" is a community outreach program that allows military and civilian children of all ages who suffer from serious or chronic medical conditions to visit an installation for the day to tour wing and base facilities. The original P4D program began at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, in December 1994 and has since spread to numerous bases across the country.

P4D arrived here at the behest of the 113th Wing and the unit's team leader, Air National Guardsman Capt. Susanne Schulz.

"Captain Schulz and I plan to alternate the lead in hosting P4D here every six months and make this an ongoing total force effort for the community," Reservist Capt. Scott Clark, 756th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 pilot said.

The behind-the-scenes coordination is designed for simple results: big smiles and an all-day pass to childhood joy.

"Wow, this is so awesome," Michael erupted as he and his friend, Alphonso, scampered through the KC-135 cargo plane's fuselage.

Donned in a flight suit, Michael absorbed bite-size lessons about the plane's various instruments as he shadowed Captain Clark.

"The first time I met Michael, I could tell he and his family were very caring and loving people," Captain Clark said. "This has been more than a one-day connection for me ... I've definitely developed a friendship with the Ogunjimis and we plan to stay in touch."

Captain Clark said P4D participants who come here are invited to return for an annual reunion at the Andrews AFB air show in May. Depending on Michael's level of tolerance during that time, there is a good chance that he and the family will attend, Reverend Ogunjimi said.

Reverend Ogunjimi described, in a literal sense, his son's journey to recovery. A Nigerian missionary, Reverend Ogunjimi said he's been living in the U.S. for over 20 years, though it was only upon confirming his stateside citizenship 10 years ago that he moved his wife and children here from West Africa. While his missionary work frequently returns him to Africa, Europe and other far reaches of the world, Reverend Ogunjimi said he was inclined to make Washington, D.C., home base to be near the medical team who has cared for Michael since his diagnosis at age 11 months.

"The Children's Hospital doctors and nurses have worked tirelessly with Michael and have consulted with just about every known medical facility in the world to help treat his condition," Reverend Ogunjimi said.

While the research into Michael's condition is ongoing, the family's connection with wing members here was instant.

Lt. Col. Al Lupenski, 459th Operations Group deputy commander, administered the "pilot's oath" just before Michael toured the ANG's F-16 fighter jet static display and the AFRC's KC-135 Stratotanker. Michael's busy day included interaction with pilots, maintenance crew, the fire department, the police department and air traffic control. As the day wound down, hugs abounded and various wing members showered Michael with gifts.

"When Michael and his father thanked us, it was all everyone in the room could do to keep from breaking down," Colonel Lupenski said. "It was a very emotional day for us."
Reverend Ogunjimi said faith and Michael's perseverance tempers his family's emotions.

"Michael is naturally a strong boy," the reverend said. "He has very high expectations of himself, and I believe that nothing will keep him from his dreams."

At other bases, P4D-eligible children have been designated through the Ronald McDonald House, Tu Nidito, and base personnel. The program is not restricted to any one illness or disease, and not limited to terminal children, but does focus on young patients with catastrophic diseases such as cancer, sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis.