Published December 21, 2006
Anyone who knows Sammy Gilbreath will tell you the Harley-riding, skydiving ball of fire for the Lord epitomizes the aggressive, try-anything go-getter.
Except when it comes to having a transplant. And that’s the only thing short of a God-healed heart that could save his life.
Gilbreath, director of the office of evangelism for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM), has been living on borrowed time since his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a pre-existing heart condition, turned dire two years ago.
“The doctors told me then that I probably would not live long enough to receive a heart anyway,” he said. “Well, I didn’t die that first six months, and I didn’t die that first year. Now it’s been two years, and I have to believe in the sovereignty of God and that He’s in control of that.”
Each day, Gilbreath has 5-7 pounds of fluid drained off his heart that it can’t pump away on its own. This is done with medication but sometimes requires a visit to the hospital. Doctors say he’s drowning in his own fluid, something that causes shortness of breath, fatigue, and sometimes even congestive heart failure. Each day, Gilbreath deals with premature ventricular contractions, something that feels like two fists banging together violently in his chest – basically one ventricle is so weak it fires out of time like the engine of a car misfires.
It’s all part of what doctors knew was coming – the natural deterioration of Gilbreath’s heart.
Every day a gift
He goes every so often to have tests run on his defibrillator, a device surgically implanted two years ago to jump-start his heart when it finally quits. Doctors tell him his heart could cease beating at any time — while he’s mowing the grass, sleeping or sitting in the recliner. And it will happen without warning.
“I haven’t thought about tomorrow. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that because I’m so far beyond what the doctors gave me any chance for,” Gilbreath said. “Every day I wake up is a gift.”
In the two years since his heart began to give out, Gilbreath said he’s logged more miles on his motorcycle, more sermons in the pulpit, and, most importantly, more souls coming to Christ than he’s ever seen before in all his years of doing the Lord’s work.
“It’s phenomenal – I don’t know what God’s doing but I’ve never been happier. I’ve never been more fulfilled,” Gilbreath said. “My wife, Carol, and I agreed that this has been the best 24 months of our life, the best 24 months of our marriage, and the best 24 months of our ministry.”
Heart for eternity
Though he’s happy to borrow just as many moments as the Lord will give him, Gilbreath said he’s not willing to push for more than that. If God works it out for him to have a heart transplant – now his only option short of a miracle in his own heart – then he’s ready but he’s got no peace about praying to get or asking others to pray to get him to the front of a list. It’s a pill those close to Gilbreath say is tough to swallow.
But to him, it’s pretty simple. “I don’t want to be the person that’s pushing for a transplant when the person (the heart donor) might not be ready to meet the Lord,” he said. “It’s inconceivable for me to covet that heart at the [eternal] demise of somebody else.”
Or a hypothetical step further – if there is one heart with two matches and one “abuses his wife and kids, he’s an alcoholic womanizer, and the other guy works for the Alabama Baptist State Convention, loves his wife, loves his kids, and is trying to be what the Lord wants him to be,” then the first guy should get the heart, Gilbreath said. “It goes to the other guy in hopes that he’ll live long enough for someone to cross his path and lead him to the Lord. If I die, I’ll be OK, but if he slips out into eternity, he’s lost forever. I can’t think of it any other way.”
But Gilbreath is not sure surgeons would see it that way.
So what does Gilbreath do to square his conviction and his options?
On the health front, he does what he can to take care of himself and trusts God will act when and if He’s ready, without Gilbreath pushing for a transplant that’s not coming easily on its own.
And each new day he has, he goes after lost souls, those he believes need new hearts more than he does. And he does it with a vengeance.
“I don’t want the history books to record that we lost Alabama on my watch. We’re not winning Alabama,” he said, misty-eyed. “So every day He gives me, I want to be faithful and give Him the best I’ve got.”
“Live like you’re dying”
In the coming months, Gilbreath will continue to take long walks with his wife and visit with his daughter and son – things that have become even more precious since the diagnosis, he said. He will preach on winning the lost and teach outreach strategies to several more churches each week. He’ll also speak at evangelism conferences in four other states, preaching the sermon that’s become his trademark and outlook on life – “Learning to live like you’re dying.”
Meanwhile a team of doctors across the nation is pursuing three new possibilities for a transplant, deciding which has the greatest chance of success in the time he has left.
“I’ve told my doctors, ‘Get your heads together and decide what you want me to do and I’ll do it.’ I’m going to trust them and wait on the doctors to tell me what to do, but I’m going to wait being busy,” Gilbreath said. “They are scratching their heads, though, because I’m not supposed to be here.”
His prayer is to end well, Gilbreath added.
“I take the doctors at their word that I don’t have much time left, and if that’s true, I just want to give Him the best I’ve got. If He leaves me here 20 more years, I still want to give Him the best I’ve got. He’s been too good to me.”
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