BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
Life has an arsenal of challenges it can throw at someone to wreak havoc upon their life, and a child stricken with cancer is among the most difficult.
Diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer at the age of four, Airman 1st Class Isaiah E. Nieves, 2nd Maintenance Squadron aerospace ground equipment journeyman, fought his way through chemotherapy, remission and a slew of medical waivers, all for the opportunity to serve his country.
“It was tough, but I just kept trying,” Nieves said. “Until they gave me a definitive no, I just kept trying.”
Originally from Sound Beach, New York, Nieves grew up as a normal kid who loved playing with friends and had an interest in basketball, completely unaware of the burdensome road ahead.
Things changed, however, when the normalcy of his childhood became disrupted by a series of abnormal medical issues.
“I started bruising really easily and I wasn’t eating the way I used to,” Nieves said. “I vividly remember being brought into the hospital room with my mom and dad and they explained to me what was going on. I was little, I didn’t really comprehend all that stuff. I knew I was sick and that was it.”
What Nieves didn’t comprehend was that he had been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), an uncommon form of blood cancer that accounts for less than half of one percent of all cancers in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. ALL is a cancer that rapidly creates immature blood cells, rather than mature ones, which can then quickly spread to various parts of the body.
“Getting the news that my son had leukemia at four and a half years old, was devastating for me,” said Idalia Cruz, Nieves’ mother. “My miracle joy of life had a life threatening disease. It broke my heart to see my son cry every time he had to get stuck with needles and watch him struggle to walk, gain and lose weight. Those were the sleepless nights.”
Nieves spent much of his youth hooked up to IV’s and other machines, eventually going through aggressive chemotherapy to try to get him into remission.
“Watching him go through treatment was torture, I felt helpless,” said Gonzalo Nieves, Isaiah Nieves’ father. “I prayed that God would give me Isaiah’s illness and take it from him. Our faith in God, his grace and mercy is what got us through it.”
At the age of eight, after four years, Nieves entered into remission. Although the more aggressive forms of treatment were through, Nieves continued to be in and out of the hospital, constantly being monitored.
“After remission, he went through five years of maintenance to keep him in remission. That was even worse,” Gonzalo said. “It was the unknown that was torture, the fear would drive one crazy while trying to be strong and sane for my boy.”
This suffering went on for another 10 years.
Once completing 10 years in remission, when Nieves was 18, he was deemed cured by his doctors.
After years of hospital visits, cancer treatments and constant check-ups, a seemingly difficult mountain to climb had been conquered, but another test loomed on the horizon.
Once he graduated and became of age, Nieves made the difficult yet virtuous decision to pursue a life in the service. He visited his local recruiter and began the process of entrance into the military.
Throughout the numerous medical screenings and health evaluations necessary for entering military service, Nieves’ previous health issues were brought to light.
“They asked about the scar across my chest from the chemo port,” Nieves said. “I was deemed cured by my doctors and the cancer hadn’t affected me in so long, that I didn’t realize how big of an issue it would be to get into the military.”
The Nieves family received a letter in the mail notifying them that Isaiah had been medically disqualified from the military because of the leukemia he had as a child.
Instead of throwing in the towel, Nieves went back to his recruiter who helped push his case up to the right people to help him successfully join.
“The role I played was to submit all his medical documents to the surgeon general for approval,” said Master Sgt. Randi Teague, Nieves’ Air Force recruiter from Riverhead, N.Y. “This process took numerous months, probably close to a year to get approved.”
Nieves’ case was routed all the way up to Congressman Lee Zeldin, U.S. Representative for New York’s 1st congressional district, whose legal team guided Nieves through the legal issues.
“He showed tremendous resilience during the process,” Teague said. “The process took almost a full year, with him having to get updated blood work done every couple of months. Throughout the entire process he stayed positive and eager to continue onto the next step.”
With the help of his family, his childhood doctors, an unrelenting recruiter and a U.S. congressman, Nieves’ uphill battle finally came to a head when he got a call from his recruiter’s office.
“One day Master Sergeant Teague called me up and told me ‘we got your waivers approved’”, Nieves said. “It was overwhelming. I had been in limbo for so long, waiting to get in and then boom it finally happened.”
Overjoyed, at the age of 22, Nieves left for Basic Military Training on July 9, 2019, and graduated two months later.
After a lifetime of struggle and perseverance, with his family in the grandstands, on a San Antonio parade field, Nieves raised his right hand and became an American Airman.
“For his sister, Kaylie, and I to watch Isaiah march out there on graduation day was to cry for,” Idalia said. “We are so proud of Isaiah and the man he has become. The Lord had set a path for him, Isaiah followed it and became an Airman.”
Nieves is now a 2nd MXS AGE mechanic at Barksdale Air Force Base where he and his team are responsible for maintaining and repairing the equipment that supplies electricity, hydraulic pressure and air pressure to Barksdale’s B-52H Stratofortresses.
Nieves even plans to finish his electrical engineering degree during his time in the Air Force.
“I definitely made the right choice,” Nieves said. “Going through the struggle of not knowing if I’m going to get in or if I’m just wasting my time, makes me appreciate it a lot more.”
Of all the paths he could’ve chosen, Nieves chose the path of service to show others that difficulties in the past don’t have to dictate your future.
“You can have cancer, recover, be healthy and live a normal life,” Nieves said. “Not only can you live a normal life but you can take it a step further and go out and serve the country.”
From a cancer stricken four-year-old to a proud Airman, Nieves remembers those who’ve helped him and will continue to use his past trials for the benefit of his country.
“Being treated for cancer as a child can result in many challenges medically, socially and developmentally,” said Priscilla Rahmer, nurse practitioner who helped Nieves through the Survivors Facing Forward Program at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. “Despite his unimaginably difficult start to his young life, Isaiah has developed into an incredibly bright and engaging young man who has accomplished much, and has his sights on much more.”