It was five minutes before the start of the Sunday morning service at our church and my youth leader and his wife asked to talked with me briefly. A pastor doesn’t like bad news before presenting the good news, so I just asked if it was important. Brian replied, “Well, I just want you to know I’m been having slight heart attacks and would like the church to be praying for me as I undergo tests.” Well, I guess that qualified for important. Brian was forty-four at the time.
My wife and I visited Brian at St. Anthony’s hospital in St. Petersburg where he and Tonya filled us in on the early prognosis that Brian had of some form of congenital heart failure which led to an enlarged heart. He would be transferred across the bay to Tampa general to undergo more detailed diagnostics by one of the top heart surgeons in the country.
After a week at Tampa General, they confirmed the findings of St. Anthony’s, with more precision, and recommended an aorta replacement, which they assured was a relatively successful surgery and usually resulting in renewed energy. Though open heart surgery is somewhat common and very successful, any operation involving your heart is never be routine.
The morning of Brian’s surgery was a tense moment for the family but Brian was confident in his Lord and upbeat. He was more concerned in easing our nerves by leading the conversation with some humor. After praying with the family and hugging Brian I left the them to spend their last moments before surgery privately. None of us would have dreamed what was about to unfold.
The heart surgery took over six hours and seemed to be a success but as soon as the doctors began wean him off the bypass system, his heart went into fibrillation, requiring five minutes of CPR before they were able to connect him to life support in ICU. Though the doctors responded quickly and kept him alive, all his major organs shut down requiring Brian to be on total life support; he would require a heart pump to circulate his blood, a machine to filter his blood, dialysis to filter his fluids, and breathing machines to provide oxygen.
Though the weaker portion of his heart on which they performed the surgery seemed to be functioning, his enlarged heart swelled larger from the surgery causing the stronger portion of his heart to fail. The immediate focus for Brian’s survival then was no longer his heart, but restoring his major organs. If necessary, current medical science can substitute a failing heart with a heart pump or a transplant, and even simulate or assist major organs, but no long-term breathing mechanism exists to enable a quality of life.
Though there were glimmers of him regaining his lung functions, any small progress was short-lived. However, he continued to be mentally responsive and alert when tested, so we prayed for a miracle touch on his vital organs and especially his lungs. Unfortunately, after a few weeks, soon his mind became unresponsive and an incurable infection spread shunting any hope of saving Brian.
So after three weeks of the administration of the best medical technology and thousands of prayers lifted up by scores of churches, a forty-four year young, and seemingly strong, Brian Walko passed away. Though we know Brian’s faith was strong and though we are fully confident God rewarded him with a home in paradise with Jesus, we struggle with the thoughts of “Why?” “Why, Lord would you take from us a young man, husband, father, son, and friend, and youth leader so suddenly,” is a question we find ourselves battling.
Why, when church after church prayed for his healing did Brian never recover? Why after his church pleaded for a miracle did he never receive one? How can you play fantasy baseball and softball with this sports-crazy friend one day, and offer your last respects the next? How can someone who’s dedicated much of his life to teen service have his life taken? How can his seventeen year old son, his loving wife and his close Italian family be praying for Brian’s recovery only to be denied such a request?
No one has the answer but maybe God provides a message for us through Brian. Be prepared. Be ready. This may be the last article I write or the last one you read. Are you ready to follow Brian’s path? This year may be our last year on earth. This Christmas may be our last time with family and friends. I’m sure Brian never imagined Thanksgiving and Christmas 2011 would be his last with his family. But maybe the message is God’s plan could be the same for you and me, so savor the time. It’s later than you think.
At his memorial many teens remembered their wacky, fun, and loving youth leader. Maybe the message is God used Brian in amazing ways that he would never have dreamed of to touch so many teens over the course of ten years. Maybe God is saying, since I knew Brian’s fate, I used Brian to save teens from throwing away their lives during critical years of decisions. He taught them how to live in this world and how to prepare for the next world we call heaven.
No one has the answer to why Brian was taken prematurely, but maybe God communicates a warning that it’s later than we think, but never too late to make a difference. Brian’s peace during his last moments before surgery spoke of full confidence that Jesus would never leave him or forsake him. Maybe it’s time for you to ask Jesus for forgiveness and peace to obtain Brian’s assurance of eternal life.