From the throes of brain surgery to the thrills of the cockpit, Eastern Kentucky University student Ethan Youngblood is soaring to new heights — literally and figuratively.
At just 4 years old, Youngblood knew he wanted to be a pilot. Growing up near the Louisville airport, he often found himself counting the planes as they came and went, mesmerized by their graceful arcs and the booming roar of the jet engines.
“From the moment I saw the first plane flying over, I knew I wanted to be a pilot.”
Becoming a pilot is no easy feat under any circumstances, but Youngblood could have never imagined just how difficult his journey to aviation would be.
In the fall of his freshman year at North Oldham High School, Youngblood began experiencing chronic migraines. As time went on, they increased in frequency and severity, and soon began to control his life. Suffering from near-constant pain and nausea, Youngblood was unable to do the things he loved most — hanging out with friends and playing baseball. Soon, even school became unmanageable.
Youngblood was taken to a neurologist, where he was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation, a condition in which the cerebellum grows too large for the cranium, resulting in extreme pressure on the brain. The solution? A six-hour surgery that would include removing part of Youngblood’s skull, as well as a vertebrae, to relieve pressure on the brain and restore cerebral spinal fluid flow.
As daunting as such a surgery sounds, Youngblood felt confident, taking comfort in the friends and family who remained at his side, promising to support him in any way they could. Still, this did not stop him from worrying about the future. Would he be able to play baseball again? More importantly, would be still be able to achieve his life-long dream of becoming a pilot?
Youngblood went in for surgery on Jan. 27, 2014. After an intense few hours, the surgery was deemed successful. While Youngblood and his family were ecstatic, they couldn’t relax just yet. A grueling 18-month recovery period was still to follow.
Youngblood would spend the next year and half floating between various doctor appointments and therapy visits. Looking back, Youngblood was especially appreciative of his parents during this time.
“From the first symptom to the end of my recovery, they spent about two years doing everything they could to get me back on my feet and living life again,” he explained. “My parents had to make many sacrifices to get me to doctor’s appointments, and I could not be more thankful for that.”
Perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment of the whole ordeal would come nearly two years post-surgery: Youngblood had to be medically cleared to fly by the Federal Aviation Administration. After undergoing a meticulous medical examination, he had to wait several months for the results.
The wait was well worth it, though. Youngblood’s pre-school aspiration was finally coming true: he was going to be a pilot. In 2015, Youngblood took his first, long-anticipated, flying lesson. He now boasts 25 hours in flying time.
Now that Youngblood’s dream was finally in reach again, it was time for the next step: finding a college where he could major in aviation. Youngblood visited a few schools, but his mind was made up pretty quickly.
“EKU was my first choice from the moment I toured for the first time,” he said. “I felt right at home when I came here for a visit, and knew this would be my school for the next four years.”
Not only did the university exude a welcoming atmosphere, but the aviation program is acclaimed as one of the best in the country, an opportunity Youngblood said he just couldn’t pass up. Youngblood isn’t the first from his family to attend EKU. His grandfather, George Ridings, was a 1964 Eastern graduate and is a member of the Hall of Distinguished Alumni.
Though the last few years have been challenging, the freshman aviation major reflects on them with a sense of gratitude.
“Flying is so much more enjoyable to me now, knowing that it could have been taken away. It definitely made me realize that I can’t take anything for granted.”