HomeNewsFeaturesDisplay

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

A baby

McKenna White, daughter of Lt. Col. Kevin White, 344th Air Refueling Squadron director of operations, recovers after her second open heart surgery in March 2012. McKenna underwent three reconstructive open-heart surgeries after being diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. (Courtesy photo)

A family photo

Lt. Col. Kevin White, 344th Air Refueling Squadron director of operations, poses for a photo with his family in November 2017 in Wichita, Kansas. White has served in the Air Force for 15 years. (Courtesy photo)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. (AFNS) -- 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.”

Engage

Facebook Twitter
The CONUS Evacuation Order for #Airmen assigned to @TeamTyndall has been updated: https://t.co/n74gtQ9KTm https://t.co/w1RqiSznFm
The STS #Airmen mission @Hurlburt_Field enables the #USAF access across the globe. By surveying landing zones & com… https://t.co/AXsdhrVGuJ
Master Sgt. Craig Domko, 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group #firstsergeant, first look at #Airmen's dormitories followin… https://t.co/s5QZRNHjev
RT @HollomanAFB: The seamless partnership between the 49th LRS & 635th MMG allowed for over 360 tons of supplies to be sent nearly 2,000 mi…
RT @ACC_Commander: Glad to see these Tyndall Raptors getting cleaned off and ready to fly again as part of Tyndall recovery efforts. #Airme
RT @DepSecDef: Great visit to @388fw & @HAFB alongside @GenDaveGoldfein & @usairforce senior leaders to talk #F35 maintenance & performance…
RT @NPR: Hundreds of military families have been displaced from Tyndall Air Force base as a result of Hurricane Michael. https://t.co/zCGM…
RT @TeamTyndall: It's been more than a week since #HurricaneMichael hit the #Florida panhandle & @TeamTyndall, #Airmen are working around t…
RT @LukeAFB: Team Luke was proud to host @POTUS, as well as @DepSecDef & @SecAFOfficial today to showcase defense capabilities. #POTUSatLuk
#Airmen of @116ACW are feeding hope to those affected by #HurricaneMichael by serving food to the #localcommunity,… https://t.co/fNaR8ip52n
RT @USNationalGuard: The worst of #HurricaneMichael brought out the best of the @FLGuard as they conduct wellness checks on residents and r…
RT @SecAFOfficial: Meeting some of the Airmen here @LukeAFB where we train more than 70% of the world’s #F35 pilots. #AirPower https://t.co…
#HurricaneMichael hit the #FloridaPanhandle Oct. 10, w/ @TeamTyndall directly in its path. Active-duty and… https://t.co/yiMUSrnH4h
RT @USAF_ACC: #Airmen from the 49th Logistics Readiness Squadron and 635th Materiel Maintenance Group, @HollomanAFB, dedicated 7,000+ man h…
RT @DoDOutreach: .@USAirForce Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Steve Wilson is here, at @InvictusSydney, meeting with the amazing #TeamUS🇺🇸 athlete…
RT @AFResearchLab: @TeamEglin has been sending a large stream of supplies to aid in rebuilding @TeamTyndall's Air Force Base. #AirForce #co
.@MaxwellAFB & @TeamEglin are serving as @FEMA staging areas, hosting search & rescue personnel & distributing supp… https://t.co/dB934hca43
RT @HollomanAFB: “Knowing that we are supporting our own has pushed the talented members of #BEARBase so much that they were able to have t…
RT @USAF_ACC: Multiple major commands are helping out @TeamTyndall! Airmen from the 823rd Red Horse Squadron, @Hurlburt_Field, & the 635th…