Heart to heart: AF steps up to help Airman’s family

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Erin McClellan
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Five days after their baby was born in 2011, they realized something was wrong. When they took her back to the hospital, they found out they were in for a long, rough road ahead.

“They quickly rushed us over to the neonatal intensive care unit, and we met with a cardiologist who said that my daughter has hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which essentially means that the left side of her heart never formed and never will,” said Lt. Col. Kevin White, 344th Air Refueling Squadron director of operations, who was then a captain stationed at McConnell Air Force Base.

“They gave us three options at that point: We could go through a series of three reconstructive open-heart surgeries to change the way her whole internal vascular system works, put her on the heart donor list to see if she could find a heart or just ease her pain,” he explained. “The third one wasn’t an option for us, and we opted for going through the reconstructive surgeries.”

His daughter, McKenna, was then flown to the University of Michigan, where she had her first surgery and would receive all subsequent care for her condition, including her second and third surgeries.
With their two-year-old in tow, Kevin and his wife drove more than 13 hours to meet her there.

Before they started their trip, Kevin was surprised to find out his commander at the time in the 22nd Operations Support Squadron, Lt. Col. Paul J. Scott, had put him on a medical temporary-duty status and had loaded $5,000 onto his government travel card.

“That meant I didn’t have to take leave, and I didn’t have to worry about paying for a hotel or food because I was getting paid per diem,” Kevin said. “I was up there for almost a month for her first surgery, and as stressful and horrible as that time was, it was amazing to have that stressor taken off my plate.”

The support Kevin and his family received from the Air Force made their hard time just a little easier.

“It’s hard to quantify how much assistance the military gave us,” said Kevin. “There were so many things I didn’t have to worry about because they were just taken care of. I don’t even know if I would’ve been able to take care of them on my own because I felt mentally and emotionally maxed out. At the time, it certainly felt like I couldn’t take on anything more. I was maxed out with just trying to care for my family.”
McKenna’s first surgery was a success, but the journey was far from over. Support from not only his leadership, but his friends, peers and the troops he led kept pouring in.

“The stress level in our marriage was reduced by Kevin’s commanders letting him know that the priority for him was his family,” said Sandy White, Kevin’s wife. “We were especially grateful for this in the beginning during McKenna’s first two surgeries when there was a much higher level of uncertainty surrounding her survival.”

A few months later, it was time for the second surgery. Kevin’s squadron had undergone a change of command since the first one, and he was surprised that even with a different commander, he received the same amount of support as the first time. It was the same for the third one, even at a new duty station with a new commander.

After his first assignment at McConnell AFB, Kevin had a permanent change of station to Scott AFB, Illinois, where he held several duty positions. When McKenna had her third surgery, he was working as a section commander under Maj. Gen. Timothy Zadalis, then the Tanker Airlift Control Center commander.

“When we got home from the surgery, Gen. Zadalis went home on his lunch break and made us a lasagna with homemade noodles and everything,” Kevin said. “He even put orange cheese on top with white cheese in the shape of a heart on it.

“His wife was gone at the time, and afterwards I found out that he had her on the phone talking him through how to do it,” he continued. “Here’s a two-star general, the busiest man I knew at the time, going home on his lunch break and making us a homemade lasagna.”
McKenna is now 6 years old and doing well. Kevin said there is no long-term data on how long her heart will last with this condition, but she should be well into adulthood before a heart replacement is necessary.
The Whites said that one of the biggest takeaways from the experience was the realization that the Air Force is not just a career, but a family, and when times are hard, its people are there for one another.

“The Air Force asks a lot of us and our families,” said Kevin. “My wife is oftentimes acting as a single mother to five young kids, and it’s hard on her. But because of our experience, we know that when stuff gets bad, the Air Force steps up to the plate and takes care of you. It makes going through the harder times easier.

“The great thing is that we have a lot of people in the Air Force who not only care about the mission, but care about other people and realize we all have to come together. I have a debt of gratitude to the Air Force, and it makes me a more dedicated Airman.”