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Pastor sees miracles, ministry opportunities in seven-month COVID battle

After being away from his children for months, Zach Lloyd was able to spend time with his wife Sara and children, Lily and Titus, in April.

NASHVILLE (BP) – When a local television station in Nashville aired footage of pastor Zach Lloyd leaving Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital, probably few people realized they were witnessing a miracle.

But that really is the only explanation for how Lloyd, pastor of East LaFollette Baptist Church in LaFollette, Tenn., was able to leave after 175 nights in hospitals and a double lung transplant.

Lloyd is quick to praise the care he received from doctors during his illness, but even quicker to point out that “God moved in ways that defy medical explanation.”

“The medical staff did a great job,” he said, “but I’m firmly convinced that without prayers, especially those from his church and the LaFollette community, and through God moving, I would not be here.

“There were many nights that the hospital personnel did not know if I would make it through the night. Our stance is that God provided and will continue to provide and that He will move in a mighty way. Words can never express the gratitude for the prayers people have prayed for me and my family over the past seven months.”

Though out of the hospital, Lloyd has to stay in Nashville a few more weeks for lab work and clinic visits before he can return home. For a man who missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and his own birthday, his desire is simple – to be home by July for his daughter Lily’s 11th birthday.

In early October, Lloyd had trouble breathing but thought he just had a sinus infection. Instead, it was the beginning of a bout with COVID-19 that would lead to months in the hospital and a double lung transplant.

He entered the local hospital in LaFollette on Oct. 16 and was there for two days before being transferred because he needed more oxygen. He was moved to Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge, Tenn., because the hospitals in nearby Knoxville were at full capacity.

“I didn’t realize the full scope of my illness until I had been at the hospital in Oak Ridge,” he said. “I realized I was sicker than I thought, and it was more serious than I expected. I took a nosedive while at Oak Ridge.”

His wife Sara agreed, saying “It was scary for him to be that sick.”

Through it all, Sara continued her job at the hospital in LaFollette, spent time with Zach as she was able and attended most of her children’s school events. She said she tried to stay calm, and she called for updates on her husband’s condition every day.

“She is amazing,” Lloyd said of his wife. “I don’t see how she has done what she’s done in the last seven months. She’s the best.”

After a few days in Oak Ridge, Lloyd has little memory of what transpired between then and about four days before Christmas, and instead learned how everything transpired later on from his family and doctors.

On Oct. 24, he was transferred to the COVID-19 ICU at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville. He was immediately connected to two ECMO machines, devices that can temporarily take over the functions of the heart and lungs.

He recalled one night that while he was on the ECMO machine, one of his tubes came out and he began to bleed profusely. It happened, however, while a doctor and nurse were standing in his doorway, and they were able to quickly reattach the tube, saving his life.

Lloyd believes “God placed them there at that exact moment because He knew what was going to happen.”

It soon became apparent that the only way for Lloyd to recover was to have a double lung transplant, not your typical hospital surgery.

Dr. Katie McPherson, one of his physicians at Vanderbilt, told WSMV news in Nashville that Lloyd’s surgery “was as high risk as it gets.” She is convinced that without the transplant Lloyd would have died.

“He’s a big win for everybody,” she said.

An unexpected blessing and looking ahead

As Lloyd prepares to return home in a few months, he is overwhelmed by the people and churches who ministered to him and his family.

One particular church reached out in a special way.

Red Bank Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., found out about Lloyd’s unique situation from Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, and reached out to the Lloyd family offering to pay the mortgage on their home for nine months.

Red Bank missions pastor Gregg Hauss said the church simply “wanted to bless a pastor and his family.”

“Pastors are not immune to what everybody faces in life,” Hauss said. “We just wanted to come alongside another Southern Baptist church and pastor who was in need to help.

“One of the things we have seen during the pandemic is that our people have been so generous in giving above their tithes to our benevolence offering. We used that to help meet needs both inside our church but primarily outside the church.”

“I was floored,” he said. “We sent the church a thank-you letter, and my wife Sara spoke with someone personally. How can you ever pay that back?”

Lloyd’s answer to that question is to be consistently be on the lookout for ministry opportunities, even while sick in a hospital bed.

Even through his sickest moments at the hospital, Lloyd could not help but be a pastor to the staff who were in constant contact with him. As he developed relationships, staff would stop by to visit and talk about faith and spiritual growth. Lloyd acknowledged he was a “counselor” at times for the staff dealing with many difficult COVID cases.

His illness “opened doors to show my faith and help and give hope and strength” to others, he said, adding that sometimes it was a two-way street.

“God placed a lot of great nurses who also were Christians who took time to encourage me and to pray for me and my family,” he said.

In addition to returning to his family, Lloyd said he is anxious to return to his church family who have prayed and supported him and his family the entire time.

Lloyd said their care for them has expanded throughout the community as they have discovered needs and prayed for others around them.

“That excites me,” he said, “and I want to return and see what God is going to do when I get back.”

While some have discouraged him from returning to the pulpit too soon and advised that he should wait at least a year, Lloyd has plans to return as soon as he can this year, even though he may need to make some adjustments, such as sitting while he preaches and even wearing a mask because his immune system is basically gone.

“I know God’s calling now more than ever before,” he said. “I have a passionate desire to tell people about a saving God and a loving Jesus.

“I’m not going to stop doing what God has called me to do.”

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  • Lonnie Wilkey/Baptist and Reflector