SPRINGFIELD – The steady rhythm of his oxygen tank could be heard coming through the loudspeakers. Seated in clusters around the church sanctuary, the congregation was focused on their pastor, Craig Fields, and the sermon he shared.
Though it’s likely Fields was feeling discomfort as he spoke, he didn’t let that show. The message was delivered so powerfully and with such an obvious sense of urgency that the entire audience seemed to be hanging on every word.
“I had a heavy burden in my heart to finish telling them what God had showed me,” he said. “And truthfully, I didn’t think I had very much time.”
Fields, who has been pastor at Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church in Springfield for almost 16 years, had spent six years studying and developing this particular sermon series on how God defines what it means to be a disciple.
“I can visualize him preaching,” said Pastor Craig’s wife, Annette. “It was amazing because in normal conversation he would often cough and be very short of breathe, but for those 45 minutes in the pulpit he would have a supernatural ability to speak God’s Word clearly and directly.”
That was a little less than a year ago, November 2009, just after Fields was diagnosed with Usual Interstitial Pneumonitis (UIP), a terminal lung disease characterized by progressive scarring of both lungs.
“The best description I can give you is if you think of my lungs like a tall building and each lit window in the building like a chamber of my lungs,” Fields said. “The disease is like those lights slowly being turned off. In other words, the scarring slowly started closing off the chambers.”
Though UIP is not known to be genetic, it does have a familial tendency. Fields’ mother was also diagnosed with the disease 23 years ago. Both he and his mother discovered the disease while in their 50s (Craig was 54 at the time of his diagnosis). Sadly, his mother died just five months after discovering the illness.
“It’s difficult to describe what it was like when we found out what was going on with Craig,” Annette said. “To say that it blew us away would be putting it lightly. Please understand, we watched while a mother of five and a grandmother of umpteen go from vibrant and healthy to, in five months, dead. We were devastated. For us this was a death blow.”
There is no known cure for those suffering from UIP. For Fields, a double lung transplant was the only possibility, but to him the idea of a transplant seemed more like a “pipe dream.”
“First off, I had already been through all this with my mother,” said Fields. “I listened when they talked about a transplant and I knew there was only an average of 58 transplants a year. We were sitting in the room with five candidates that day and realized the odds were not in our favor. I had to move forward from that possibility immediately. I knew my hope and trust was not in the doctors, not in the diagnosis and not in a lung transplant. Only God. He is sufficient.”
Once the diagnosis was confirmed, the only thing Pastor Craig and his loved ones could do was watch while his health continued to steadily decline. Well, that, and pray.
“The thought never crossed my mind that this illness was unfair,” Fields said. “Illnesses happen to people every day. My thought was, why NOT me? I am no one special. I am a Christian living in this messed up world and things aren’t fair but it doesn’t matter. I trust God, period. I do not serve God for what He does for me. I serve because He is God. My circumstances do not change one thing.”
“I think it’s a reminder for us that pastors are mortal,” said Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church Associate Pastor Jonathan House. “They experience the same problems as other people. It’s all part of the fall of man. The awesome thing has been that despite their difficulties they have continued to serve the Lord and to give Him the glory. The church and I, personally, have been greatly encouraged through Pastor Craig and Annette’s testimony and lives.”
Fields’ health continued to deteriorate and the couple had to move to St. Louis to be near Barnes-Jewish Hospital to receive the oxygen necessary to sustain him while they waited for a transplant opportunity. Meanwhile, the people at Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church continued to minister to them, displaying what it means to be a “true body of Christ.”
“They have been wonderful,” Fields said. “They have prayed without ceasing, they have continued to pay us full salary and have sent love gifts on top of that. They have taken care of our home while we have been away and they have even taken care of our grandchildren so our children could come up and be with us. That is how the body is supposed to operate. Of course, my heart is telling me that I am the one who should be taking care of them, but we certainly appreciate everything they have done.”
A few church members even put together a “Prayer Warriors Across the Globe” Google Map that shows all the places around the world where prayers have been lifted up on the Fields’ behalf.
“It’s so humbling to think that all those prayers were going up,” Annette said. “The best part is that God heard every one of those prayers and that the mercy He bestowed on us was nothing that we deserved.”
As weeks passed, Fields’ health had declined so much that he desired to speak with his church body again … for what he thought might be the last time. Using Skype, a software application that allows users to make voice and video conference calls over the Internet, Fields was able to talk with his congregation during a morning worship service from his temporary home in St. Louis.
“We’ve always been very honest with our people, hiding nothing,” he said. “I had to give them some very difficult words while at the same time I tried to be an encouragement. It was difficult for me and it was difficult for them.”
But then a miracle happened. About nine months after he was first diagnosed with UIP, Fields received word that the hospital had acquired transplant lungs … and he was at the top of the list to receive them.
“With transplants, the worse you get the higher you move up on the list,” Fields said. “I had leap-frogged over a number of people in just a short time.”
Before they knew about the surgery, Annette said July 13 was in fact one of the worse days the couple had had so far. Earlier that day Fields had three portable oxygen tanks to get him from the hospital back to their apartment. Because Fields was on such a high level of oxygen, the tanks emptied quickly.
“We were waiting a long time for our car and the first tank emptied,” she said. “Then the second tank emptied and we began the third tank before we got in the car for the 10-minute trip home. I was panicking about traffic jams and the fact that I didn’t know CPR. It was very scary and probably one of the lowest points, but we made it.”
That’s when they received the call to come back to the hospital for the transplant surgery and then a whole new roller coaster of emotions set in.
“Everybody was just ecstatic,” Annette said. “Meanwhile, I was terrified. When they took him in I couldn’t help but think that he might not ever come back. Any feelings of jubilation I would have had were curbed by the panic and fear of the whole ordeal. Being taken to that point of death was overwhelming. I was glad other people were celebrating because it was wonderful, but I just kept looking around the room, needing him to comfort me. He has always been the one to comfort me and I kept absentmindedly looking for him even though I knew he wasn’t there.”
Fields’ transplant surgery went “appropriately.” The doctor informed them that Fields wasn’t doing exceptionally well or poor, but simply average. The hours following the surgery were critical and would be telling as to how Fields’ body would handle the new lungs. He was put on a ventilator (which was expected) and monitored closely for any complications that might occur.
“It took a while to believe that he was going to get better,” Annette said. “But every day he continues to improve and he looks healthier. I’ve finally begun to believe he is truly on the road to recovery. I am just rejoicing every single day for every single day.”
Though the Fields are still in St. Louis making regular trips to get monitored and checked, they have been in contact with the people at Jefferson Avenue several times since the surgery. They used Skype again and received a standing ovation from their church family (done as a praise offering to God). They made a short trip to Springfield in early September and Fields returned to the pulpit Oct. 3.
“When the congregation stood up and cheered it was such a humbling thing,” Fields said. “I can’t even describe it. God loves you through His people and the way He poured out His love through them was such a constant encouragement to us.”
Each day Fields’ health continues to improve and, although doctors have explained that the average post-transplant life expectancy is three to five years, Fields is certain about one thing.
“The survival rates don’t dictate,” he said. “Our faith is not in a diagnosis and the doctors don’t know. None of us are guaranteed. The truth is we are all terminal. I’m just aware of it. We should all be thankful and say what we need to say with the time we have.”
KAYLA RINKER / contributing writer