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May 05, 2023

Cooper Health surgeon's decision to join U.S. Army Reserves offers life lessons for others

Dr. Christopher Derivaux's story underscores the inspirational power of relationships and the motivation to live healthy

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Dr. Chris Derivaux Cooper Courtesy/Louis Bezich

Dr. Christopher Derivaux, a thoracic surgeon at Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey, fulfilled a lifelong dream by joining the U.S. Army Reserves in his 50s.

Feb. 8 marked a major milestone in the life of Dr. Christopher Derivaux, a thoracic surgeon at Cooper University Health Care in Camden. The 55-year-old father of four from Haddonfield had found a way to channel his motivation to save the lives of young men and women, and fulfill a lifelong dream to serve by joining the Army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves.

This extraordinary story reads like a case study from the 50-plus playbook – finding new purpose though an encore career, the inspirational power of relationships and the motivation to live healthy. It is a story that can benefit us all.

As a boy, Derivaux listened to his dad and uncles swap stories of their military service in World War II and Korea. His father was a Navy veteran who served in both wars, including a stint on the Battleship New Jersey, now a floating museum on the Camden waterfront. Those stories made an impression. 

Graduating from high school, Derivaux had the opportunity to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, but he knew other schools were a better fit for a career in medicine. So, it was off to college, followed by a medical degree from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

As he pursued his career and raised a family with his wife Tricia, the thought of military service and those talks with his dad remained in the back of his mind. Several key moments in his life ultimately unlocked those thoughts and prompted him to take action.

The first was a discussion he had with a colleague from his surgical group, Dr. Joe Costabile, a veteran of the U.S. Marines and a surgeon in the U.S. Naval Reserve Medical Corps. Costabile described the fulfillment he felt from deployments in Iraq and served as an early role model.

When Derivaux got to Cooper, an impromptu conversation in the cafeteria with Col. Kirby Gross, an Army trauma surgeon assigned to the health system's Division of Trauma in the Section of Military, Diplomatic, and Field Surgical Affairs, further fueled his fire to serve. Gross described Cooper's military training programs, in which active-duty Army physicians are assigned to multiple-year rotations at Cooper’s trauma and emergency departments to keep their skills sharp and battlefield-ready. As with Costabile, the talk with Gross had a significant impact, especially comments regarding the need for senior-level surgeons in the Army.

But a more personal and emotional connection convinced Derivaux to act. When his son Christopher Jr. became a cadet at West Point, Derivaux experienced what he called "an awakening." Observing his son among the other cadets on a campus visit, he realized that these "kids" soon would be commissioned officers and could be on the battlefield at a moment’s notice.

Like a bolt of lightning, those childhood memories with his dad and uncles, and the conversations with Costabile and Gross came surging back. He had the answer to how he could give back – a new purpose built on his commitment to healing. By joining the reserves and becoming an Army physician, he could be there for his son and the young men and women he saw at West Point. When his daughter Lilly earned a Minuteman Scholarship with her ROTC program at Yale University, the deal was sealed. Derivaux called it "the icing on the cake."

Derivaux was going to take his place among his family in serving the country – even if he would be 53 when he applied.

Derivaux's status as a surgeon and his good health enabled him to get an age waiver and positioned him to enter the Army as a lieutenant colonel. He made a total commitment of eight years, three in the reserves and another five in what is known as the "individual ready" reserves. He is required to log 16 hours a month with the Army and can help train the active-duty military physicians rotating through Cooper. All-in-all, it is a scenario that he said has him feeling great. And a big part of that feeling comes from knowing that his wife Tricia supports that decision fully. "There’s no bigger patriot than her," he said.

An introspective look

On a personal level, Derivaux’s new military career prompted a fresh look at his own lifestyle. He passed the Army’s physical fitness test, which required a 2-mile run, push-ups, pull-ups and a deadlift, but recognized that he needed to step up his game. 

"I became more mindful of how out-of-shape I was," he told me. Going forward, he will need to pass the physical annually, but equally motivating is the passion to be there for his family.

He has joined a gym and works hard to get there two-to-three nights a week despite a hectic schedule. A Mediterranean diet shapes his eating habits and an effort to cut back on fats. As Derivaux put it, "I try to do what I tell my patients to do."

A message for men

As a thoracic surgeon, Derivaux sees the results of unhealthy practices first hand. He cited cancer-related smoking as a classic example of a behavior-related disease that he routinely confronts. And while three-quarters of patients who undergo surgery modify their behaviors and stop smoking, he speaks with amazement about the 25% that continue smoking. As a man whose life choices have been so inspired by family relationships, Derivaux shares that perspective with his patients. "Do the right thing so you're around," he tells them. "See your kids get married."

I asked Derivaux what message he would have for men over 50. He paused for a moment to reflect and offered the following three recommendations. First, "keep your eyes open and look for an opportunity to make a difference." Second, "the game is not over, you have plenty of time to make an impact on your family and your community." Third, "live your life in a healthy way that allows you to reach your goals." Sage advice from a man who is unquestionably walking the walk.

Derivaux is living proof that it is never too late to chase your dreams, that our most personal relationships are our strongest motivators and that a healthy lifestyle plays an integral role in our lives. You will not find a better example of the men's health playbook. Lt. Col. Derivaux, to you and your family, thank you for your service and the inspiration your story provides to 50-plus men and the people who love them.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.

Disclosure: George E. Norcross III serves as chairman of the Cooper Health System's board of trustees and is the father of PhillyVoice Founder and Chairwoman Lexie Norcross.

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