A year after transplant, pastor embraces donor’s family

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The beating heart of a coach keeps a pastor in the pulpit and ministering among his flock. And the reunion of that coach’s heart with his family brought the pastor’s congregation to tears.

joseph parker family240Joseph Parker, pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Austin, greets the family of Darrell Jones. Jones’ death last year in a car crash allowed allowed doctors to transplant his heart and give Parker a new lease on life.Joseph Parker met the family of Darrell Jones after Parker preached the Sunday morning sermon at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Austin Feb. 23—exactly a year and a month after he received Jones’ heart.

The reunion took place at the bittersweet intersection of two agonizing roads.

Parker’s journey began in 1997, when he learned his heart stopped repeatedly while he slept, and his cardiologist installed a pacemaker. In 2003, he suffered cardiac arrest and received a pacemaker/defibrillator.

By 2012, he needed a new defibrillator, but it couldn’t compensate for his failing heart. Neither could two heart surgeries.

Out of options

“In January 2013, my doctor said, ‘There’s nothing else to do,’” Parker told the Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Board recently. He represents Austin-area Baptists on the board.

So, Parker entered the heart transplant unit at Seton Medical Center in Austin. His doctor warned he might wait up to six months. With Type O blood, standing 6 feet 3 inches and weighing more than 200 pounds, few hearts could carry the load of keeping him alive.

Jones’ brief final journey began in eastern Gonzalez County, where his pickup slammed into a turning 18-wheeler. A medical helicopter carried him to a San Antonio hospital, where he died the following day, and his family agreed to donate his organs.

Darrell Jones’ heart beats in Joseph Parker’s chest

That was when Parker’s medical team began preparing him for surgery, three weeks after he was placed on the transplant list. About six hours later, Jones’ heart beat in Parker’s chest. And while Jones’ family grieved, Parker’s family and congregation rejoiced but also mourned for the loved ones of a donor they did not know.

“All I knew was there had been some vehicular accident that took the life of my donor,” Parker said of his initial information about the person who saved his life.

joseph parker preaching400Joseph Parker preaching last May soon after he recovered from his heart transplant.After a hiatus of five months, Parker returned to his pulpit last May. During the summer, he received a letter from Jones’ mother, Carolyn Reid, a member of Central Baptist Church in Luling. She told Parker her son was a science teacher and coached more than 23 years. She said he had two daughters; a sister, who is a fire fighter; and a brother, who also is a coach and science teacher. She assured him they loved the man who carried his “new” heart for 47 years.

“It was not until the first part of January that I responded to her,” Parker said. He wrote a long letter, describing his medical background, his family, his ministry. “I told her I experienced the birth of my first grandchild, my 61st birthday, my 30th year as an attorney and my 21st year in the pastorate, thanks to her son’s heart.” He told her he was ready to meet Darrell Jones’ family.

‘We talked. We cried’

Before they laid eyes on each other, the pastor and the mother visited on the phone in early February.

“We talked. We cried,” he recalled.

He learned Jones’ family had planned to surprise him by visiting David Chapel the first Sunday in February, but they discovered he was not scheduled to preach. The next weekend, the weather was bad. Finally, they journeyed to Austin for the Sunday morning service Feb. 23.

“I already told the congregation the week before to expect them,” Parker said. The usual crowd, plus the children and youth who attended the adult service rather than their programs, as well as the just plain curious packed the sanctuary.

My church now knows miracles don’t just happen in the Bible.

Parker changed the order of service to ensure he preached before he greeted Jones’ family, realizing he would not be in shape to proclaim if the order were reversed.

“I preached on ‘Now See God Work,’” he said. “In my conclusion, I spoke of God being amazing. I left the pulpit and went down to embrace her (Jones’ mother). We cried. It was my first time to see her.”

She told him: “I want to lean my head on your chest, because I want to hear Darrell’s heart.”

He told her: “The strength of Darrell’s heart is the strength of my life.”

He also noted that’s not all: “Part of you is in me.”

As they talked, Parker told her he had been scheduled for a surgery to install a ventricular assist device, which would have pushed him further down the waiting line to receive a heart. Then she told him: “God held you up from the surgery because he knew Darrell was coming for you.”

The David Chapel family formed a receiving line to express their love and gratitude to Darrell Jones’ family.

The moment delivered spiritual reality into the confines of the congregation, Parker added: “My church now knows miracles don’t just happen in the Bible.”

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