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Local Pastor Makes Kidney Health Mission of Ministry

Chronic kidney disease is not stopping Pastor Derek Gatling from serving the community. He has made health a focus of his ministry.

Pastor Gatling
Updated August 18, 2022

Like many young people, Derek ate whatever he liked. Not one for going to the doctor, he was unaware of the stress his diet of high-salt, processed foods was placing on his health.

“I didn’t feel there was any need to go to the doctor. All I was anticipating was at age 45, you do your prostate exam,” said Derek. “Regular checkups were not part of my thought process at that time. Just going about life, and not looking at how eating habits and lack of exercise affects your body.”

In his early 40s, though, everything changed. Derek discovered he had high blood pressure, and on the advice of his primary care provider, visited Virtua kidney specialist Virginia Irwin-Scott, DO.

Dr. Irwin-Scott diagnosed Derek with stage 3 chronic kidney disease (CKD), a common condition often caused by high blood pressure where the kidneys lose their ability to filter waste from the body.

“Uncontrolled hypertension is the silent killer, for heart and kidney disease,” said Dr. Irwin-Scott. “You can slow the progression of CKD with blood pressure control, but you can’t reverse the damage.”

Today, Derek, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jericho in Deptford, isn’t letting CKD and dialysis stop him from leading an expanding congregation and serving the Gloucester County community.

No Early Symptoms

Born in the Bronx and raised in East Orange and Fayetteville, North Carolina, Derek worked as a regional account executive at Wachovia Bank and for nonprofit organizations in South Jersey

He was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1995 and led several churches before becoming senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Jericho in 2016.

Dr. Irwin-Scott suspects Derek developed CKD in his early 30s. As the loss of kidney function is gradual, it can take years to develop symptoms, such as swelling in your legs, feet and hands, fatigue, and changes in urination. Some, like Derek, do not show signs at all before being diagnosed through blood tests.

Derek said he was shocked to learn he had CKD, and it took a while to come to terms with the changes it would require in his life.

“How come I didn’t catch it earlier? Why didn’t I see the signs? Why didn’t I think to get a physical earlier?” he said. “I was young and feeling invincible. I could do anything. I was trying to get on with my career. My health was not even a discussion.”

Medication to control his high blood pressure, diet, and a healthier lifestyle slowed the progression of his disease. In early 2021, Derek began dialysis and listed for a kidney transplant with Virtua Advanced Transplant & Organ Health.

Focus on Health

An estimated 37 million Americans have CKD, although 90% likely don’t know it. Diabetes and high blood pressure are the leading causes of CKD.

Your chances of having CKD increase with age. African Americans, Latinx, and Indigenous peoples have a greater risk for kidney disease, largely due to higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Derek, now 53, wishes he had paid attention to his health earlier in life. That’s why he’s now made health a leading focus of his ministry, emphasizing fresh fruits and vegetables over processed and high-sugar foods, exercise, and regularly seeing a doctor.

“African American churches have high rates of diabetes and blood pressure issues,” he said. “I want to make sure we change that narrative.”

Despite the exhaustion of dialysis three days a week, the husband and father of three continues to preach every Sunday and teach Bible study. The church also runs a food pantry and a nutrition program for seniors, and is renovating a nearby former firehouse and school.

“Fortunately, I have excellent staff who take over while I am at dialysis,” he said.

Derek, who was recently honored as Citizen of the Year by the Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce, said he won’t let CKD stop him.

“I don’t allow dialysis or the lack of having kidney function deter me from doing the community work that needs to be done,” he said.

Turn the Page on Chronic Kidney Disease

We’ve built the most comprehensive kidney care program in the region, providing complete, proven care through every stage of the disease.

To schedule an appointment with a Virtua kidney specialist, call 856-325-3341 or request an appointment here.

If you are unsure about your kidney health, take our quick and easy Kidney Health Risk Assessment.