Miracle Man

Mark Holliday strode casually to the pulpit at Mount Tabor Baptist Church last Sunday, and, amazingly, it seemed as though he had never been gone.

You never would’ve known by looking at him that Mark, a deacon at Mount Tabor and a high school teacher who coaches wrestling and football, had been walking through the valley of the shadow of death for nearly four months.

You never would have guessed that he had “died” (the term used by a hospital chaplain) seven times in 40 days. How’s that for a feat of biblical proportions!

It’s no wonder that many of the thousands of people who’ve been praying for him are calling him a Miracle Man.

This was his triumphant return to church after all that.

Based on what I’d heard, I half expected that his wife would wheel him out there, prop him up and let him wheeze out a few words of thanks for all the prayers and roll him back out.

But there he stood, sporting a nicely slimmed-down physique, looking like he had just come back from a long vacation at some health spa.

With astonishing calmness, he opened his mouth and began the familiar acclamation.

“And all God’s children said?”

“Amen!” came the reply.

It was the same old, good old Mark!

I had seen him walk up to that pulpit many times on Sunday mornings to make the announcements, and sometimes to sing with the praise and worship team — the same praise and worship team I used to play guitar with (and hope to again).

Three of my grandkids go to church there, and their mom’s family has deep roots in this small congregation on Dacusville Highway, in the shadow of Table Rock Mountain.

On this special day, the place was filled with friends and supporters who came to see Mark’s miraculous return. And to thank God for his new heart.

Not the spiritual “heart of flesh” that Ezekiel spoke of.

He had that operation a long time ago.

This was a heart of flesh that had belonged to an 18-21-year-old man, possibly from the Miami area.

This was a heart transplant.

Mark is very grateful for the young man’s heart that now beats in his chest. He’s thankful for living on, when nature would have turned him back to dust.

But he credits the same Great Physician who healed his spiritual heart years ago with leading him through this extraordinary medical intervention that by all normal and natural means should not have succeeded.

“God has been in every detail of this from day one,” he said.


A life-changing experience

Only one in 10 patients survive the experience of “coding,” when the body shuts down so that the patient is essentially “dead” for a time. Mark survived it seven times.

He “flatlined” 23 times.

He got jolted with defibrillators and other devices 254 times, underwent 23 rounds of CPR, with one session lasting so long that the nurses became exhausted and had to switch to a mechanical device.

It was torture to watch, his wife Tina said, but she couldn’t bear to leave his side.

“One time, I wasn’t sure if he could go on,” she said. “I just wanted it to stop.”

“I either wanted God to fix it or him not to have a pulse. And I was prepared either way.”

She knew he’d be in a better place if God took him, but still, she didn’t want to lose him.

It had been a long, heartrending struggle for Tina to reach that level of faith.

But as the 45-minute CPR session went on, she started praying aloud, after every two-minute cycle, a prayer she had heard Mark pray so many times after football games.

“Our Father, who art in heaven …”

Before long, all the doctors and nurses were joining in with her.

This is not the kind of thing Tina ever would have done in the past.

Not that she wasn’t already a believer. She was. But she had been through experiences that kept her from feeling able to develop the kind of relationship with God she knew Mark had.

She was struggling though the “Experiencing God” class at church and was thinking of dropping out.

“I just wasn’t getting it,” she said.

But God, she said, has “a huge sense of humor” with her.

“God slapped me in the face and said, ‘Girl, you’re going to experience Me!’” she said.

And to hear Mark tell it, this whole agonizing ordeal was worth it because of the impact it had on others — especially Tina.

“I know now that she’s not just saved, but she’s anchored,” he said. “And come what may with me, she’s going to be fine.”

Mark said he’s seen many other people’s lives blessed and relationships healed through this trial.

“There’s nothing like a catastrophic event sometimes, not just to bring people to their knees, but to bring people together,” he said.

It was a life-changing experience for Tina.

“I thought Mark was my rock,” she said. But through this, she learned that, “God was my rock. And I had to fall completely on my face and get completely down before God lifted me up.”


Groundhog Day

This whole episode came out of the blue.

Until Feb. 2, Mark had no idea there was anything wrong with his heart.

He went to the gym before school to work out as usual. But he came home early, saying he felt a little tired and short of breath.

Tina immediately said, “You’re going to the ER, now!”

But Mark’s not the type to worry at the first sign of trouble. No, he said he would go on to school; he’d be fine.

Tina went with him. Eventually, she talked him into going to see a doctor.

It turned out that he had had a massive heart attack — two or three days earlier — and didn’t even know it! His heart function was down to 27 percent.

Tina sprang into action. Once Mark’s medical care was going, she tapped into his Facebook page and sent out an urgent message to his 4,000 friends and to the 76 churches he was connected with online.

“I figured the more God heard Mark’s name, He would either take him and give him peace, or fix it,” she said.

Tina kept everyone informed about what was going on via Facebook, but there are too many twists and turns for me to go into here. But Mark was sent back home after that first hospital visit and even went back to work for a few days before having trouble again.

He ended up at the Medical University of South Carolina Hospital in Charleston when it was determined that he wasn’t going to make it unless he got a heart transplant.


The low point

Before long, it appeared that he was about to get one. He was already prepped for surgery when at the last minute, it was determined that this heart wouldn’t be suitable for Mark.

He was now being kept alive by a machine, and the clock was ticking on how long he’d be able to survive on it.

That was a low point for everyone — except possibly Mark.

He updated his will, wrote his own obituary, made farewell videos for family members and even recorded himself singing an Elvis song — “Love Me Tender” — and sent it to Tina for her to remember him by.

I admit, I started thinking we’d probably never see Mark again in this world.

“I knew the shadow of death was upon me,” he recalled. “And I prayed, ‘Lord, your will be done.’”

Tina said she was “at peace, because I knew where he was going.”

But “selfishly,” she said, “I wanted him here with me.”


Finally, a new heart

After that disappointment came more prayers. More tears. Days went by. There seemed little reason for hope.

Then, at last, the miracle everyone had been praying for. Another heart had become available, and it seemed to be a perfect match.

Still, Mark had to go through an 11-hour surgery, with many more prayers and tears before the doctor came out and told Tina that the new heart had fit perfectly, an extremely rare match.

Mark looks at the reality that someone had to die in order for him to live as a mirror pointing to faith in Christ.

“I’m thankful for this. I’m grateful,” he said. “I’m sorry that the young man had to die for my life to go on. But it’s a perfect picture of what Jesus does for us.”

The young man whose heart now beats in Mark saved eight different people with his organs, Tina said, encouraging others to consider being organ donors.


Long road

It would still be weeks that Mark had to stay in the hospital, with Tina, on unpaid leave from work, at his side.

Not only did a lot of prayer go up for Mark and Tina, but also a substantial amount of financial support came in.

“The rally really has been incredible,” Mark said. “It’s been overwhelming.”

Although Tina has those painful memories of all the traumatic life-saving treatments her husband endured, Mark says he doesn’t remember any of those high-voltage defibrillations.

All he remembers is having lots of “weird thoughts” while he was under sedation.

That, he said, is another story for another time.

I can’t wait to hear that story, because if it was anything like what many people who have “near-death” experiences have, it might have been a taste of what lies ahead, on the other side of this universe of time and space.

There’s still more to this story in the here and now, though.

Tina told me that the doctors had said they didn’t think Mark would ever be able to work again.

But he’s signed on to start another year this fall teaching social studies and coaching football at Blue Ridge High School. He was even out on the football field with the team last week.

So Mr. Holliday’s Opus has not reached its grand finale yet.

And all God’s children said: