Teen with leukemia becomes pilot for a day

Posted at 08/16/2014 1:06 PM | Updated as of 08/18/2014 9:15 AM
Jake Sebial with pilot Capt. Lee Seong Thiang inside an Airbus A320 simulator at AirAsia Academy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo courtesy of AirAsia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - After being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia last year, 18-year-old Jake Sebial immediately thought it would be the end for his dream of becoming a pilot.

"Yun talaga yung dream niya. Kaya lang [sabi niya] 'May sakit na ako, hindi na pwede,'" Sebial's aunt, Rubi, told a small group of Filipino journalists inside the AirAsia Academy in Kuala Lumpur on August 13, Wednesday.

Sebial, who hails from Danao City, Cebu, was brought to a hospital in August last year due to high fever. His family initially thought he was suffering from dengue since he had low platelet count.

But after further tests, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer.

Sebial was on his third year in Guinsay National High School then. While he still wanted to continue going to school, he was forced to stop since he had to undergo treatment for five months, which included chemotherapy for five days every month.

He underwent treatment at the Perpetual Succour Hospital Cebu Cancer Institute with the help of Kythe Foundation, a non-stock, non-profit organization that provides psychosocial care to children with chronic illness, particularly those with cancer.

His aunt Rubi is a volunteer at Kythe Foundation.

One day, Make-A-Wish Foundation Philippines visited the hospital where Sebial was in and interviewed the children.

The Make-A-Wish volunteers had a goal -- to be able to grant the wishes of the children to enrich their human experience with hope, strength, and joy.

MAKING A DREAM COME TRUE

According to Te Candano, a trustee of Make-A-Wish Foundation Philippines, they grant four types of wish -- wish to meet, wish to be, wish to have, and wish to go.

Usually, children would tell them of their wishes to have this toy or that gadget. But Sebial had a different wish, Candano noted.

"Itong si Jake medyo kakaiba po yung kanyang dream. Gusto niya maging piloto kahit isang araw lang," she said.

So the volunteer who was assigned to Sebial immediately wrote a letter to AirAsia Philippines to ask for their assistance in fulfilling the teenage boy's wish.

According to AirAsia Philippines Communications Manager Jenny Bugarin-Tan, after reading the letter, AirAsia Philippines Chief Executive Officer Maan Hontiveros as well as AirAsia Group Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes did not have second thoughts on bringing Sebial to their academy in Kuala Lumpur so that he could experience "flying" a plane for free.

But the whole process wasn't easy, Rubi said. She said they still had to prepare documents, get passports, and obtain medical clearance for Sebial. "Lumindol pa, may 'Yolanda' pa po, so maraming delays," she said.

She said they also had to keep everything a secret to her nephew so that it would come as a surprise when they go to Kuala Lumpur. She said they only told him that they would be going there for a short vacation.

Jake Sebial receives a token from pilot Capt. Lee Seong Thiang after "flying" an Airbus A320 at AirAsia Academy. Photo courtesy of AirAsia

'A BORN PILOT'

Finally, on August 13, Sebial, accompanied by Rubi and Candano, was told why they flew all the way from Cebu to Manila to Kuala Lumpur.

"Na-surprise talaga siya kasi until nalipad kami dito, hindi niya alam na [pupunta sa AirAsia Academy]. Talagang surprise," Rubi said while Sebial was preparing for his first flight as a "pilot."

With the assistance of Capt. Lee Seong Thiang, Sebial's wish to fly a plane was granted.

AirAsia Academy, which is the training ground for the airline's pilots and cabin crew, allowed him to fly an Airbus A320 simulator for 45 minutes from Kuala Lumpur to Penang and then land back in Kuala Lumpur. An hour-long session in the simulator costs $900 or over P39,000.

After the 45-hour flight, a smiling Sebial went out of the simulator. "Good. Masaya. Parang [nao-overwhelm]. Success po ito ng pangarap ko," he said.

He also happily shared that during the flight, Thiang described him as a "born pilot."

"[Sabi niya] 'Magpatuloy lang sa mga pangarap ko. Mag-aral ng mabuti.' Happy si Captain na naging student ako," he said.

'FLY AROUND THE WORLD'

According to Sebial, his experience at AirAsia Academy, which also included a short tour, has further fueled his desire to become a pilot someday.

He said he wants to help his parents, who are both working as vendors in Danao City, Cebu.

He said he also wants to tour the whole Asia and also fly around the world.

Sebial has finished his five-month treatment, and is now taking oral medication. He still needs to undergo a medical check-up every month and a bone marrow assessment every six months.

Since Sebial is doing well after chemotherapy, Rubi said he will be going back to school next year.

Meanwhile, Candano said the Make-A-Wish Foundation is happy to have helped in making Sebial's dream come true.

"We believe na pag may gina-grant kaming wish, may dinudulot kami, nakakapagbigay kami ng hope," she said.

Sebial, for his part, said he will never forget the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity given to him by AirAsia.

"Thank you sa AirAsia, finulfill aking wish. Sobrang na-inspire ako sa mga tinuro nila sa akin," he said.

When asked what he would first tell his parents when he gets home, Sebial said: "Nay, Tay, ang saya maging piloto."