Soaring to new heights - Tom’s story

Soaring to new heights - Tom’s story

19-year-old Tom, in training to be a pilot

Determined not to let his medical challenges hinder the pursuit of his dreams, 19-year-old Tom has soared to new heights, on his way to getting his pilot’s license. 

Growing up near Bankstown Airport, Tom’s fascination with planes and aviation developed early. 

At the age of eight, he took his first steps into the aviation world by joining a cadet program with the Australian Air League, absorbing himself in drills and basic education. 

Tom, training to be a pilot

What started as a hobby quickly became a passion and began to shape the trajectory of his future career. 

Yet, amidst big dreams, Tom faced significant health challenges that threatened his ability to fly.

At the age of six, Tom was diagnosed with Juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM), a rare childhood autoimmune condition that causes inflammation of the skin and muscle and can lead to possible tissue damage. 

Tom’s condition was relatively mild, however, it still caused significant fatigue and joint stiffness, as well as intermittent flare-ups, which were more severe and often required steroids to manage. 

Since being diagnosed, Tom has regularly visited Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick and worked with a multidisciplinary team on a plan to not only manage his condition, but also ensure he can still pursue his dreams.

“My experience with JDM is that you can look fine at one point and then go backwards quite a few steps. I had several flare ups during my childhood and early teenage years,” Tom said. 

“When this happened, having somewhere to go where I felt safe and informed helped put me at ease. I still remember how welcoming the whole team at SCH was, from receptionists through to medical specialists. It was always a positive environment to walk into.” 

At the age of 14, Tom embarked on his first supervised light aircraft flight from Camden Airport and achieved the momentous milestone of his first solo flight at 16 years old. 

During this time, Tom’s condition continued to gradually stabilise and improve, reaching a turning point as he neared adulthood. 

“There is strenuous medical testing to be a pilot and given there was a lot of ambiguity around my disease at a young age, I grappled with uncertainty about what it meant for my future,” Tom said.

“I got a little bit panicky towards the end of school about how my condition might affect my career, but I chose not to give up on my dreams, and I’m really grateful for that looking back now.” 

Thankfully, Tom passed his medical tests, and after completing his HSC, enrolled in an aviation course. He is now halfway through his commercial pilot’s license qualification, with aspirations to become a flight instructor. 

“All of us are different but the common advice I could give is you can’t let the present day define what you think can be your future life,” Tom said.

“Keep going until you get to the next point where you see things are changing and remind yourself that you can do this. You never know what might be in store next for you.” 

The Paediatric Rheumatology Network (PRN), a collaboration between the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, the Agency for Clinical Innovation (ACI) and Arthritis & Osteoporosis NSW, is dedicated to improving care for children and young people with rheumatologic disorders. For more information, visit the PRN website

To support SCHN's rheumatology services in helping more children with autoimmune conditions, like Tom, achieve their dreams, Sydney Children's Hospitals Foundation is currently seeking fundraising support