Drake White took the stage last Friday for an outdoor concert series in Roanoke, Virginia, and immediately started delivering the kind of show the soulful powerhouse has long been known for. But 15 minutes into his performance, the Alabama native began to stumble, his bandmate quickly catching him before he collapsed to the ground. Fans witnessing the episode became concerned as friends and family closest to White started to pray. Could there be something seriously wrong with Drake White?
While the incident shocked many, it came just as the “Livin’ the Dream” singer, 35, was finally ready to reveal a secret health battle he’s faced for months now: In January he was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), an abnormal tangle of arteries and veins in the brain that disrupts normal blood flow.
“It was basically stealing blood from my brain,” White told PEOPLE in an exclusive interview in July, just weeks before his onstage scare. “The neurologist told me that I should be thankful it was caught in time, because it could have caused a stroke.”
Since then, he’s been undergoing a series of embolization procedures to cut off blood flow to the affected vessels — the last just four days before he came close to collapsing. Though it is still unclear if his near-fall was directly related to that procedure or his condition, the musician had already decided that it was time to share the details of the grueling medical journey he’s been on since the beginning of the year.
“I’m not telling this story for me,” White told PEOPLE last month. “Someone needs to hear it and God wants me to share it. It will help people believe in miracles, and I will feel that energy. The world needs that kind of energy right now.”
White’s health ordeal began over the winter. He was at home in Nashville and developed a headache — one that wouldn’t go away.
“That morning, I had worked out and went to a lunch meeting, and that’s when the headache started,” White recalled. “By 2 p.m. I was in bed seeing spots in my left eye, and that’s when my left side started going numb. I tried to sleep it off but woke up with the same intense headache.”
Alarmed, the “Makin’ Me Look Good Again” singer headed to the emergency room with his wife of five years, Alex.
“The true nightmare is having something wrong with you and not knowing what it is,” admitted White, who — along with his band The Big Fire — has toured with artists including Willie Nelson, Dierks Bentley, Zac Brown Band, Eric Church and Kip Moore throughout the years. “Nobody could tell me what was wrong.”
After undergoing an “excruciating” MRI as well as an angiogram, White and his wife anxiously awaited the official diagnosis. “I definitely had some ‘Oh s—’ moments on the side of my bed at two in the morning,” White said of the days before learning of his condition, which doctors believe he’s likely had since birth.
Finally, the test results were in and answers arrived — it was a brain arteriovenous malformation.
“The next thing I know, there is a guy walking in with the word ‘neurologist’ on his nameplate. He told me, ‘You have a mass in the back of your head. It’s treatable, but it’s going to take a while.’ It was at that moment Alex and I said to each other that whatever it is, we would battle through it. Our faith went into overdrive.”
A series of embolization procedures were scheduled. White described the crucial operations as neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Mericle at Centennial Hospital in Nashville “running a catheter through my femoral arteries all the way up to the back of my head to glue the AVM shut.”
Now, eight months and four embolizations later — the most recent taking place on Aug. 12, four days before his near-collapse — White told PEOPLE that Dr. Mericle is confident that they have “knocked out 75% of the mass.”
“He has to space them out due to my brain being used to the amount of blood flow for 35 years,” White explained, adding that he hoped to be AVM-free by the end of 2019. “If he had embolized the whole mass in one surgery, it would cause major problems with my mobility and maybe a stroke.”
While undergoing the embolization process, White had kept up his touring schedule, often appearing onstage just days after a treatment. “There was a show in April that I played 48 hours after surgery,” he said. “And that was very therapeutic to me. Emotionally it made me realize that I could still do this. Maybe I wasn’t jumping around like I usually do, but I was doing it.”
But going forward the star will be taking it a bit easier on himself. And as he and Alex await further test results and news on his condition and prognosis, they will be relying on their faith to see them through. “Drake and I are grateful to God and all he has done,” said Alex, 33, speaking to PEOPLE from her husband’s bedside on Monday. “He has worked miracles in the last 24 hours.”
And while White joked about life after his surgeries are complete — “I’m adamant that once it’s all done, I will be able to run faster and play guitar better and get Alex pregnant immediately” — he admitted that the experience has left him a changed man. He finds himself filled with profound gratitude as well as a deepened faith — both of which he hopes will be evident in his life and his music going forward.
“My attitude is better. From the moment I found out, I refused to see it as a problem. Rather, I chose to let it inspire me and help others. I have to think I’ve been going through all of this for a reason,” White said. “Everyone is going through something. You have to treat every person like it could be their last day. Not to be all sunshine and rainbows, but all of this made me appreciate all that I have and all that is to come.”
For more on Drake White and arteriovenous malformations, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.