4 Lessons from a Deferred Medical

Well, I've hung up my headset.

At least for the time being. You see, I've had my medical deferred.

Yup - I got a deferred medical due to hypothyroidism, meaning my thyroid gland does not work as well as it should, and I have to take a daily pill to keep my metabolism and other functions up to speed.

AME Clipboard

My Deferred Medical Story Begins

A not awesome combination of factors collided to cause this deferred medical situation - most of which were my own fault. I had been on the same dose of the medicine I take for hypothyroidism - levothyroxine 112mcg - for several years with no change, so I assumed all was well before my medical came due in July. I also procrastinated on scheduling my medical appointment, so that I ended up going in early in August, after my medical had expired. I can't blame anyone but myself for that. Oh, yeah - I also had not gone in to see my eye doctor in over a year - again - my prescription had not changed in several years.

So when I went in to the Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) for my appointment, I was unprepared to leave with a deferred medical... I had always gotten it without any problems before. Last time, shortly after my hypothyroism diagnosis, I even got a first-class medical, with no info from my doctor or anything regarding the diagnosis. I feel like I should mention that for convenience, I went to a different AME this time, (I work about 10 minutes from the new AME, but at least 30 minutes from the old one).

Let me also add that, only about two weeks prior to my medical appointment, I had my blood drawn to check my thyroid levels at my family physician - and my prescription did need to change. I guess that was my first indication that we might have a problem.

And a problem we did have. I left the AME with a deferred medical and instructions to get a letter from my family physician that included specific information and wording regarding my hypothyroid condition, and to include a copy of my most recent (within the past 90 days) labs. Since my thyroid was out of "normal" range (hence my dosage changing), the AME couldn't approve my medical there, we had to defer to the FAA (gulp). Additionally, my vision was not 20/20, so I had to do a third class and not a second class medical. Fortunately, I can continue to instruct with a third class medical, once I get approval from the FAA.

So third class medical, deferred to the FAA's Office of Aeospace Medicine. The AME told me to expect a letter from the FAA in a couple of weeks, telling me what I need to submit to them to receive my medical - most likely it would be a continuance of the deferred medical for up to 30 days to give time to prove my thyroid is back in normal range. As long as I keep in touch with the FAA Aeromedical Division - in writing - the deferral can be continued if necessary. This is good, since thyroid medication can take up to six weeks to really take effect, and there is no guarantee that my new dose will be correct initially - it may need to be raised again after my next blood draw and lab results.

Worst-case scenario, I was told, would be that I would be notified that I have to do a special issuance now - and the communication from the FAA will include numerous other bits of medical information and tests that I will have to supply to them. I'm still waiting to hear which it will be...

Now What?

Leaving the AME's office in a sort of daze, my mind immediately flipped to "What happens to my students now that I have a deferred medical?"

I currently only have three active students, so it's not as if I have many to find new instructors for, but will other instructors have the time and capacity to take my students on, at whatever level they are at now? I had one student who had just soloed, one who was probably going to solo on our next lesson, and one who was still just starting and very early on.

Fortunately, aviation people are awesome, and there was no problem finding good instructors who I trust to take my students. I happened to be teaching a Discover Aviation course the following weekend at The Ohio State University, so I asked my two OSU Flight Training Clinic students to come to that class so we could talk before &/or after the class.

My newest student requested the instructor who had taught her ground school, and he was able to take her, so that worked out very well. My student nearly ready to solo was taken on by another Flight Training Clinic instructor as well, so they were covered. My student at Capital City Jet Center at Bolton Field airport (KTZR) was taken on by another fantastic instructor there, so it did not take long before all my students were covered by new instructors.

I do fully expect to get my medical back, and I do want my students back, as I really feel that I have a connection with my current students. Naturally, I told all of my students that I would love to have them back once my deferred medical is re-issued, but that I would not be offended if they chose to stay with their new instructors instead.

So this medical situation was doubly painful, as not only do I not get to fly, I also don't get to see my students for the time being!

Important Lessons

Oh my goodness, there are just so many things to learn here. PLEASE PLEASE learn from my mistakes and don't make them on your own. It is depressing and scary and nerve-wracking.

Lesson 1: Know whether any medical condition you have might affect your medical certification.

I should have taken advantage of AOPA's medical service to find out whether my hypothyroidism might be an issue. If you have any kind of medical issue or take a prescription of any kind regularly, KNOW WHETHER IT WILL AFFECT YOUR MEDICAL APPLICATION. Once you know, you can continue to follow up on it and do your best to make sure all is in order when you visit your AME to renew your medical.

If I had it to do over, I would have had my blood draw and labs done with my family doctor at least 90 days prior to visiting my AME. That way I would have known earlier that my labs were out of bounds, and would have had a little bit of time to get it corrected and possibly have avoided the whole deferred medical situation.

Lesson 2: Don't wait until the last minute to schedule your appointment with your Aviation Medical Examiner.

I am still kicking myself for waiting until mid-July to schedule with my AME when my medical expired at the end of the same month. I told myself that it would all be fine, since nothing had changed since my last medical. I told myself that it was silly to renew before the month it was due in - that would be like losing months and money in paying for it early, and hence allowing it to expire earlier. Is that logical? I sure am paying for it now by losing students, pay, and even the ability for me to fly myself at all. Ugh.

Lesson 3: Don't fall behind on ANY Of your medical appointments.

Just get yourself in the habit of always staying up-to-date on your medical stuff. Get your eyes checked yearly. See your family doctor for a basic checkup at least once per year. Go to the dentist every six months (whether you floss or not). Just KEEP UP WITH IT! It will give you an earlier indication of whether there might be an issue, and you can start researching and fixing whatever might come up before it causes a deferred medical, a special issuance, or worse - a denied medical!

Life After Flight

It can't be helped, I beleive, to start thinking about what you might do as a pilot if you all of a sudden can't fly anymore for some reason.

That was the second thing that started running through my head - after worrying about getting my students covered - "What am I going to do with myself if I can't legally fly anymore?"

I would continue to instruct, though it would be in simulators and doing ground schools. I would also hold myself out to commercial students, since they would be legal to fly as PIC, I could still instruct them, and be able to get in the air. Also, I hope that I have made some good friends in aviation over the years who might be willing to suffer me in an extra seat once in awhile.

I might get into RC flying. I might try ultralights or hot air baloons or gliders. I might try hang gliding. I might attach helium baloons to a lawn chair. I might spend more time on Flight Simulator X.

I WILL spend more time with my family and less time at the airport. I will learn to do some computer / website programming. I'll do some more internet business work a la Pat Flynn and Jason & Jeremy of Internet Business Mastery. I'll learn more about copywriting and do some of that on the side.

Youngest Daughter

Where my time will go while I'm not flying...

The point is, I'll live. I'll stay involved in aviation as I am able to, but I'll do some other things I am interested in, too.

Lesson 4: Have other interests!

If your entire life is focused on aviation, it can be incredibly depressing and frightening when aviation is taken away from you by a deferred medical (or, god forbid, a denied medical). Cultivate some other passions and interests, and - as they would say in investing circles - diversify. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Create a backup plan.

I'm lucky - I have a 9-5 job that is in aviation, and I instruct on evenings and weekends. It is not the end of the world for me to have a deferred medical. And while I fully intend to get it back - and I honestly believe that I will - this has been eye opening for me as a process and as a possibility.

Moving Forward

This thread will continue, as I hope to interview some people who have had deferred medical issues and have beaten them and ended up getting their medical, as well as some people who have lost their medicals and have survived and thrived. If you are one of those people and want to tell your story, please let me know. The great folks who make up the Blogging in Formation team have offered a few names of people who might be interested, but I'd like to hear from anyone else who reads this and has some input or a point of view on this to please speak up in the comments or contact me so we can talk and I can keep this discussion going!

Andrew Hartley IS a certificated flight instructor and commercial pilot in Columbus, Ohio. He WAS medically certified until this month. He WILL be medically certified again - whatever it takes.

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