February 21, 2020
PA Crucial to Getting Air Force Captain Correct Diagnosis
Retired Capt. Rob Hufford Inspires Those Around Him
November 8, 2019
By Dave Andrews
Retired Capt. Lawrence “Rob” Hufford, USAF, dreamed as a boy of following in his dad’s footsteps. To him, that meant he would play football at the University of Notre Dame, win a national championship, and then become a podiatrist.
Hufford, now 36, lightheartedly points out he went 0-for-3 in achieving those goals. But what he has achieved thus far is a success story of serving his country, overcoming adversity, and lifting up those around him—all while learning to manage a debilitating illness.
Hufford made his way onto the collegiate gridiron by playing for the Air Force Academy. He admits his initial motivation to attend the Academy was more about playing football than serving in the military, but his mindset changed early on.
“I quickly learned that I really enjoyed the military,” he said. “It wasn’t long before I’d formed a deep appreciation for its inherent camaraderie and the different components of its structure.”
After earning his degree in civil engineering, Hufford was stationed at various air force bases from Minot and Cavalier (both in North Dakota), to Joint Base Andrews (Maryland) and Lajes Air Base (Portugal). During that time, he also served two deployments to Iraq.
Throughout adulthood, Hufford had increasingly dealt with periodic “fuzzy spells,” as he describes them. Their frequency progressed from around once a month to about twice a week, at times causing him to briefly lose consciousness. He’d sought medical help from numerous specialists and received various diagnoses and treatments, but nothing seemed to work.
Then one day while serving jury duty at Lajes Air Base, Hufford experienced another “fuzzy spell” when he lost consciousness for nearly 15 minutes. A fellow juror of his—who happened to be a PA— witnessed the episode and helped Hufford get the appropriate care he desperately needed.
The PA immediately informed the Surgeon General at Lajes about the severity of Hufford’s condition. The PA’s detailed account of Hufford’s apparent seizure provided the Surgeon General enough reason to send Hufford to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for testing where—on the very first day he arrived—he was accurately diagnosed with complex partial seizures.
Walter Reed providers discovered he was suffering an average of 12 seizures a day and classified him as epileptic. Large doses of medications helped, but to completely eliminate the seizures, Hufford would ultimately undergo brain surgery.
Though successful, the surgery brought on additional side effects and eventually led to Hufford’s medical release from the military.
“I loved the Air Force and I wanted to stay in, but all signs were pointing to me being removed from duty,” he said. “When they placed me on the temporary disability list, I felt like my career had been ripped away from me.”
Civilian life for Hufford immediately presented several challenges: His brain surgery and the medications he was taking were causing him anxiety and depression; he worked various engineering jobs which ultimately did not pan out; and his wife suddenly asked for a divorce, all within a four-year timespan.
Reigniting a Competitive Spirit
Just as Hufford was losing all hope, an old friend from basic training reached out and told him about the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program (AFW2). Though somewhat reluctant, Hufford decided he had nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
“In just my first week, the program kick-started my recovery and helped me climb out of that deep, dark hole of depression I was in,” Hufford said.
Hufford quickly regained his competitive spirit. He started playing a variety of adaptive sports and began an intense training program in preparation to participate in the Department of Defense Warrior Games. He competed in several events in the 2018 and 2019 games, going on to win multiple medals including a total of seven gold, two silver, and one bronze. He was also invited to compete in the 2018 Invictus Games, winning one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals.
“The fact that Rob has managed to maintain such a positive attitude despite his illness and the impact it had on his Air Force career is truly inspiring,” said Shawn Sprayberry, communication and marketing manager for AFW2. “He never really lost his competitive edge, which shows in everything he does. Wounded warriors in our program go through many similar obstacles in their recovery, but Rob really epitomizes the resiliency needed to overcome them.”
Hufford also became involved in the AFW2 Ambassadors Program, giving him the opportunity to speak at various Air Force personnel briefings to inspire others by sharing his personal experiences. The program also led Hufford to connect with a fellow engineer who offered him the perfect job opportunity—with the Air Force.
The Bear is Back in Blue
An enthusiastic Hufford says he feels like he’s “back in blue … minus the uniform” as a civil engineer at Offutt Air Force Base (Nebraska) where he is primarily tasked with managing the base’s runway replacement project. He is also assisting with many other reconstruction projects following the massive flooding that submerged much of the base in early 2019.
Hufford was medically retired from the Air Force officially in July 2017, but is grateful to have the opportunity to continue serving within the Air Force family, both as a government employee at Offutt and as a member of AFW2. And the feeling is mutual among all those around him.
“Rob has a huge heart and he lifts up everyone he comes in contact with—and I mean that both literally and figuratively,” said Brad Britt, ambassador and outreach program manager for AFW2.
Hufford is widely known for giving strong bear hugs when he greets people—no matter if it is an old friend or a new acquaintance. His gregarious nature is also a primary reason he was selected as the “Heart of the Team” at the 2018 Warrior Games.
“Those bear hugs can be scary for some who are meeting him for the first time—he’s a big guy. But, they become something you look forward to because he’s so genuinely glad to see you,” Britt said. “That’s just one example of how Rob is so good at finding ways to increase the morale of those around him, motivating them to accomplish more than they ever thought they could.”
Dave Andrews is a freelance writer and public relations professional based in Northern Virginia. Contact him at [email protected].
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