08/12/17 — Facing the fight, together

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Facing the fight, together

By Rochelle Moore
Published in News on August 12, 2017 6:27 PM

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Cancer survivor Jonith Matta sits and talks with Ron Biermann Friday, as he and several other Airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base deliver chemo bags to patients receiving treatment at Southeastern Medical Oncology Center. Both men bonded over their service in the Air Force. Matta retired as a staff sergeant and Biermann retired as a senior master sergeant.


Senior Airman Jessica Vasquez delivers a chemo bag filled with goodies to Angela Thompson, who is receiving a treatment, Friday.

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Rosalind Hogan looks through her bag of goodies Friday during her chemotherapy treatment at Southeastern Medical Oncology Center. The bag that contained a picture frame, crossword puzzle book, pen, sanitizing wipes and gel, chapstick, first aid kit, snacks and a handwritten note from one of the five Airmen that delivered the bags.

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Staff Sgt. Nicole Smith visits with chemotherapy patients at Southeastern Medical Oncology Friday as she and other Airmen deliver goody bags to people who are receiving treatment.

Jonith "John" Matta remembers the long days, hours and months of struggling to survive after being diagnosed with bone marrow cancer at the age of 26.

It's been a two-year journey of chemotherapy treatments and other aggressive medical procedures. The retired Air Force staff sergeant continues to receive treatment, but the cancer is now in remission.

His retirement followed his 2015 diagnosis of Stage 3 multiple myeloma.

At some point along the road, he and his fiance, Jessica Vasquez, an Air Force senior airman, decided they wanted to make the path for others a little easier.

On Friday, a group of five Seymour Johnson Air Force Base airmen, including Matta and Vasquez, handed out gift bags to 20 patients receiving chemotherapy and other treatments at the Southeastern Medical Oncology Center, in Goldsboro.

"We just thought of this idea to give something back," Matta said. "We wanted to remind them that no matter what we go through in the military, it pales in comparison to what these people and their families go through."

The couple wanted to include other airmen because they've noticed how many patients visit the chemotherapy suite without anyone to talk with, for hours at a time. They also know how it feels to physically and mentally go through treatments.

"I've been here," Vasquez said. "I've sat here with him. It just really hits close to home, and it's something I really wanted to do."

During the Friday visit, the airmen walked through the chemotherapy suite and handed out the gift bags that were stocked with items Matta knew patients would want and need.

"I thought of everything that could be useful that we could afford for 20 people," Matta said.

The bags each had a crossword puzzle book, a box of Cracker Jack, tissues, ChapStick, scented hand sanitizer, a small first aid kit, a blue pen to symbolize the Air Force and a handwritten card, signed by the five airmen. The group paid for the items out of their own pockets, about $230.

Ron Biermann Sr., who was going through five hours of chemotherapy treatment Friday, said the visit and the gifts made a world of difference.

"Coming in here is not the best thing in the world to do," Biermann said. "You're down anyway, and it brightens your spirits up with people coming in and visiting and doing something for you. It shows they really care.

"I think that's what the world needs nowadays is people caring about each other, especially with what's happening in this world."

One patient took time to go through her gift bag before settling back in, under a blanket, for her treatment. Another man said he appreciated the visit, even though he was just receiving his regular iron infusion treatment.

"It's very needed, and it's very nice," said patient Jesse Outlaw.

He also appreciated the time the airmen took to visit.

 "These folks are in the Air Force, and I appreciate what they do," Outlaw said. "I really appreciate what they do."

Staff Sgt. Nicole Smith, with the 4th medical group at SJAFB, said she wanted to help after being asked by Vasquez. Smith and Vasquez are both assigned to the 4th medical group on base.

"It's not something I've ever seen before," Smith said. "I don't know anyone personally who has gone through chemotherapy. It's nice to come out and hear people's stories."

Staff Sgt. Emmanuel Solis, with the 4th civil engineering squadron, also wanted to give back after also having gone through chemotherapy. His cancer is also in remission.

"It's nice to come back and visit and see the people who helped you out and to talk with the patients," he said. "Some of the patients come with nobody and some of them are here the majority of the day."

Matta and Vasquez plan to deliver care packages to SMOC patients once every three months.

Oncologist Dr. James Atkins said the SMOC staff appreciated the visit Friday as well as the support base personnel provide in the local community.

"I know the patients, they're going through some tough times, and it's nice to have somebody be able to come and even spend just a few minutes to say hello to them and talk to them and even give them little goodie bags to brighten up their day," Atkins said.

"Anytime that they can get a little stress reduced, I think, is a benefit for them. It builds your spirits a little bit. It makes them feel better. It gives them a better day.

"There's nothing like a day in your life with a smile."