The morning started with a gorgeous sunrise.
It was March 13, 2020, and Carly Crockett, a commercial pilot for Endeavor Airlines, was flying her first flight of the day, from Baton Rouge to Atlanta. While correcting for a crosswind landing 80 feet above the ground, Carly’s arm suddenly snapped and fell to her side. She immediately called for her captain to take control of the CRJ-900 jet.
“Everything kind of went in slow motion at that point,” remembers Carly, who was 28 at the time. “I remember sitting there trying to figure out, ‘Why is my arm not working?’ In my head, I was thinking a dislocated shoulder, something associated with a pulled muscle, maybe. I was in shock at first, but then it started to be some of the worst pain I had ever felt in my life.”
An Unexpected Diagnosis
After the plane safely landed, Carly was taken to a hospital where an X-ray showed a fracture in her humerus, the upper arm bone. The bone showed up as gray on the scan, indicating that it was hollow. Carly was then taken to a larger hospital for another X-ray and a second opinion. The doctors determined that the humerus bone was indeed broken and that it might even be cancer. Carly describes this day as absolutely terrifying.
Kathy, Carly’s mom, got on the next available flight to help her daughter get home to St. Paul, MN. An MRI scan confirmed the doctors’ suspicion: It was osteosarcoma.
“I remember everything went fuzzy from there,” says Carly, who sat in disbelief with her parents and her sister as they started as a family on her cancer journey. They became her foundation and strength to begin the long road to recovery.
“As things started to happen and we found out more [about the diagnosis], I just tried to be strong,” says Kathy. “It wasn’t easy, but in front of Carly I always tried to hide my fear that this cancer might take her from us. When I realized she wouldn’t think that way, I decided I wouldn’t either.”
“Honestly, what scared me the most was that I thought that I’d lost my chance to fly,” admits Carly, who had spent the last three years studying and training to become a pilot. Flying was everything to her. It was her life’s dream, and she was determined to get back in the cockpit.
A Grueling Recovery
In August 2020, after six rounds of chemotherapy at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Carly had an 11-hour surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, to remove the shoulder joint and upper humerus that contained the tumor. She had a reverse shoulder rotation and most of her humerus was replaced with an allograft, or tissue graft. Her whole deltoid muscle had to be removed because it was contaminated when the tumor leaked from the fracture.
Carly’s orthopedic surgical team, who she calls her own personal superheroes, are Dr. Matthew Houdek and Dr. Bassem Elhassan. Dr. Houdek performed the careful task of removing the damaged portion of the humerus and replacing it with a precisely measured allograft substitute. Dr. Elhassan performed a muscle/tendon transfer from her pectoral region and shifted it over into her arm. This novel procedure, developed by Dr. Elhassan, was to ensure that she had as much mobility in her arm as possible.
“It’s a parent’s nightmare to see your child — no matter what age — suffering, scared and in pain,” says Kathy. “You wish more than anything that it could have happened to you instead. Once your child has osteosarcoma, the worry never goes away.”
For eight weeks, Carly lived in a body cast and brace. After the brace removal, she still had to wear a sling for some time. Her recovery wasn’t easy; grueling physical therapy, pool therapy and a six-mile walk were her daily routine. But Carly resolved that she would do everything possible to get back to the life she knew before her osteosarcoma diagnosis.
In March 2021, however, a year after she was initially diagnosed, the cancer spread to her right lung. Two tumors were surgically removed. Six months later, another tumor was found in her left lung. Dr. Houdek was at both surgeries, assuring Carly that he would position her arm himself, even though it was the thoracic team doing the procedure. Dr. Houdek always made Carly feel safe and unafraid.
Despite these recurrences, Carly’s cancer recovery story was filled with optimism, and she worked at regaining her strength every day. Dr. Elhassan continuously tells her to keep smiling — and she does. She also enrolled at the University of North Dakota for her Master’s degree in aviation management and busied herself looking for a new airline job.
Landing her Dream Job
Finally, in November 2021, Carly felt her luck shifting. A representative at Delta Air Lines contacted her about a job opportunity in their flight training department. Carly’s dad, who is also a pilot, and many of his close friends and people he flew with, sent letters to Delta, sharing Carly’s story of perseverance.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m going to interview for my dream job because working for Delta has always been my main goal.” She flew to Atlanta for an interview and excitedly returned as a new Delta employee.
Today, Carly works at Delta, teaching Airbus A320 procedures to pilots. While she hasn’t started flying again herself, she is committed to making it a reality. Carly is so dedicated to strengthening her arm and body in the hope of getting her pilot medical clearance back. Her past two scans since December have come back clear, so she is very optimistic!
There are times when Carly looks back on her cancer journey in disbelief.
“I feel so lucky,” she says. “I couldn’t have gotten through this experience without my family and friends, my amazing surgeons and medical team, and my new work family at Delta. The people around me lifted me up — I’m this happy and healthy because of them.”
As a parent witnessing her child becoming so sick, Kathy is immensely proud of Carly for her undying determination to fight against all odds.
“My advice would be to always do your best to keep positive, stay strong and stay healthy yourself so that you can be a good caregiver,” Kathy says. “Let your child feel every emotion they need to feel on any given day, and just be there to listen and lean on. Also, don’t be afraid to accept the help of others. It’s therapeutic for a person fighting cancer to witness how many people want to shower them with warmth and love when times are tough.”
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