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Living with chronic illness: Airman doesn't let diagnosis hold him back

Retired Master Sgt. Derrell White stands proudly in uniform at Homestead Air Force Base during his first Reserve assignment in the late 1980s. Courtesy photo.

Retired Master Sgt. Derrell White stands proudly in uniform at Homestead Air Force Base during his first Reserve assignment in the late 1980s. Courtesy photo.

Master Sgt. Heidi White and her husband, retired Master Sgt. Derrell White, pose for a picture with their daughter on their wedding day. Courtesy photo.

Master Sgt. Heidi White and her husband, retired Master Sgt. Derrell White, pose for a picture with their daughter on their wedding day. Courtesy photo.

Master Sgt. Heidi White and her husband, retired Master Sgt. Derrell White, pose for a picture with their daughter on their wedding day. Courtesy photo.

Master Sgt. Heidi White and her husband, retired Master Sgt. Derrell White, pose for a picture with their daughter on their wedding day. Courtesy photo.

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Retired Master Sgt. Derrell White enjoys physical activities. He likes playing sports, running races, doing martial arts, going to the gym and more. But he can't do his favorite activities much these days -- a chronic condition has changed his life.

In 1986, Derrell was 26 and in the best shape of his life. He had recently finished his first enlistment in the Air Force. He felt great when he reported to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Miami for a post-enlistment physical and was staggered when the doctor diagnosed him with a kidney disease that would eventually threaten his life.

What? Me?

Derrell got a biopsy and a second opinion from a specialist; the test results confirmed he had IgA Nephropathy, which has no known cure. According to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit organization dedicated to medical care, research and education, IgA Nephropathy occurs when an antibody called immunoglobulin A, or IgA, lodges in the kidneys. This results in inflammation that over time reduces the kidneys' ability to filter waste, excess water and electrolytes from the blood -- all primary functions of healthy kidneys.

"Initially I was devastated," Derrell said. "The VA was telling me that I would need a kidney transplant. What? Me? A kidney transplant? I was the poster child of perfect health."

Derrell said his kidney specialist, known as a nephrologist, was instrumental in helping him understand his condition and extend his life through regularly scheduled medical appointments and a special diet.

"My doctor was my saving grace," Derrell said. "He educated me on the disease and said if we work together that I probably wouldn't need a kidney transplant for many years."

Going Reserve

Derrell knew his condition might eventually threaten his life, but it didn't really affect him for several years. He remained physically fit and modified his diet to his doctor's specifications.

He had completed his initial enlistment and went back to civilian life for a while, but he missed the camaraderie of his Air Force family. His condition was duty limiting, so his request for reenlistment was declined. Although it was a big disappointment, Derrell had another option -- he decided to look into the Air Force Reserve.

He applied for a medical waiver to enlist in the Reserve. When it was approved, he became a crew chief at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida. He said it proved to be one of the best decisions of his life.

A win-win bet

While working in aircraft maintenance at Homestead during the late 1990s, Derrell met the woman who would become his wife. As an expediter, his job was to coordinate items needed to fix a broken jet and have the tools on hand for crew chiefs when they arrived at the aircraft. His work was mainly on the flight line, where security forces Airmen constantly patrolled. One day he caught the attention of one Airman in particular.

"I was working on the flight line, and I didn't even know what an expediter was," said Master Sgt. Heidi White, now Derrell's wife and the unit training manager for the 920th Maintenance Group at Patrick. "I went to some aircraft, and this cute guy comes walking up with this big grin on his face and asks, 'Can I help you?' I thought, 'Yes, you can.'"

Heidi, a Reserve security forces Airman and Department of Defense police officer at the time, said she immediately thought he would someday be her husband.

Their friendship grew during the next couple months as Heidi volunteered to patrol the flight line to be closer to her crush, and Derrell would offer to bring her dinner during her shift. Finally, her boss gave her an ultimatum: either she ask Derrell on a date, or her boss would do it for her. Heidi didn't want to be too bold, so she found a sneaky way to ensure a date would occur.

"Our first date was a bet; I knew it was a win-win," she recalled. "I said, if you win this bet you have to take me out on a date, and if I win I'll take you out. I don't even remember what the bet was -- it's irrelevant now."

Heidi lost the bet and had to buy dinner that evening, but she said they both won in the long run. They went to a seafood restaurant, where Derrell was able to order a meal to fit his special diet. Eventually, he would have to explain his diet -- and his potentially life-threatening condition -- to his future wife.

Healthier living

Derrell gave Heidi an overview of his condition and its implications, including his regular doctor appointments and dietary restrictions. He said she was extremely supportive and altered her diet to be more in line with his when they started living together.

"He introduced me to a healthier lifestyle," Heidi said. "The longer Derrell and I were together, the more a part of my life a healthy lifestyle became until it was less a choice and more a habit."

They improved their diets by replacing salt with alternate seasonings, cutting back on soda and drinking more water, eating more whole grains, and buying lower fat dairy products.

"That's not to say that Derrell and I don't enjoy a good piece of chocolate cake once in a while or splurge and have chicken wings or pizza or something, but those are special occasions, and I've learned to love our diet," Heidi said.

A turn for the worse

For nearly two decades, the Whites were living happily ever after. They had civilian and Reserve jobs, became part of the 920th Rescue Wing, and were raising their daughter. Derrell retired from the Reserve in 2013 and went on to work as a government civilian for the Defense Contracting Management Agency. Approximately a year after his military retirement, he finally began feeling the effects of his kidney condition.

During a routine doctor's visit in fall 2014, Derrell learned his kidneys were operating at below 20 percent of normal. Over the next few months his condition began hindering his daily life. He became anemic and was often fatigued. He no longer had the energy to maintain his physical activities. His doctor told him it was only a matter of time before he would face kidney failure.

Nearly 30 years after the VA discovered his condition, Derrell needed a kidney transplant.

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This is the first of a two-part series about living with chronic illness. Read more in the next article, Living with chronic illness: Retired reservist seeks life-saving organ donor.