Terry Fortner recently celebrated his 25th Thanksgiving as pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Cabot, Arkansas. While he’s always had a lot to be thankful for, this year he has an even greater reason to give thanks.
A few years ago, Fortner went to the doctor to get some scans for kidney stones. In the process, the doctor thought he saw evidence of fatty liver. Fortner just chalked it up to being overweight at the time and didn’t worry any more about it.
Everything seemed to be fine until 2020 when Fortner began to have problems remembering. His doctor referred him to a neurologist for some blood work. There were no neurological issues, but he was told that his liver enzymes could cause him to feel confused. A visit to the hematologist revealed that there were definite indications of cirrhosis of the liver.
Fortner was sent to a gastroenterologist and was told to lose weight and exercise. So, he heeded the doctor’s advice and started exercising and changed his diet.
These lifestyle changes seemed to be working as Fortner says he felt fine physically and was able to do all that he wanted to do for the next couple of years.
In July of 2022, Fortner attended children’s camp at Walnut Ridge and said he felt fine during the week. When he returned home, Fortner began to feel tired, but he assumed it was due to his age and his busy week at camp.
Soon after returning home from camp, Fortner had a regular scheduled doctor’s appointment. The doctor noticed a lot of swelling in his legs and ordered some more blood work. Fortner received the news that he had advanced liver failure.
He was sent immediately to UAMS in Little Rock and spent the next two months doing more tests and visiting with more specialists to see if he qualified to get on the transplant list.
At the end of September 2022, Fortner took a trip to Dallas with his wife and grandson.
They returned at the end of the week, and he began to feel tired again. He laid down to rest and woke up at 9 a.m. the next day. Upon standing, Fortner says he felt like he was going to pass out, so he sat down on the floor to keep himself from falling. He said he was unable to lift himself off the floor, so he laid there for about an hour until his wife, Robbie, came in and found him.
On the list
After helping him up, Robbie drove him straight to the ER where the transplant doctor met them for an evaluation. After the evaluation, Fortner was placed on the transplant list. He was told to expect to be on the list for weeks, maybe even months or longer.
“Six days after I got on that list, I got a phone call that they had a found a match for me and to get to the hospital the next morning at eight o’clock,” Fortner said. “I was told to be prepared to spend the whole day and not to be disappointed or surprised if the liver didn’t work out.”
At one point, the doctor told Robbie that they expected Fortner would have to go back into surgery later that day to stop the bleeding. But the bleeding slowed to the point that the second surgery was not necessary.
A kidney doctor came in and said Fortner’s kidneys weren’t functioning, so they were going to have to start dialysis. They were going to put him on medicine to help kick start the kidneys to avoid dialysis, but when the nurse came in to administer the medication, the kidneys had started functioning on their own.
Before the surgery, Fortner was made aware of the many risks involved and warned that there was a chance he might not survive. “As a Christian, when I woke up in the ICU, my first thought was, oh man, I’m still here,” Fortner said. “I was ready to go to Heaven if that’s what God wanted.”
In total, Fortner spent four days in the ICU and the last day was only necessary because there were no beds available on the main floor. Just one week after arriving at the hospital for the transplant, Fortner was discharged from the hospital.
He went for a follow-up visit on Nov. 29 and received a perfect report less than two months removed from surgery.
The normal recovery time is six months. The only setback was a return trip to the hospital to repair a hernia which Fortner says is not unusual for the type of surgery he had. He says even the doctors are amazed at the timing and the results of everything.
Back in January of 2022, the FDA approved the use of a machine that keeps a human liver alive and functioning normally for up to 12 hours outside of the body. Fortner was the first person in Arkansas and only the second person in the United States to receive a liver that had been preserved using this technology.
“The doctors have told me that I am a walking miracle and that I prove that God answers prayer,” Fortner said. “I went from wondering if I was even going to get on the transplant list to a week later receiving the transplant, which is unheard of.”
Providence at church
During this time, God was also looking out for the church that Fortner has faithfully pastored for so many years.
“We’re a small country church. I mean, we run around 120 on a good day, but God brought four retired ministers into the congregation over the last couple of years,” Fortner said. He wasn’t quite sure why at the time, but now he sees that God was already working to provide before anyone even knew there was a need. These men, along with the church’s student pastor, filled the pulpit and took care of the congregation in Fortner’s absence.
Fortner says he is ready to return to the pulpit and will begin preaching again on Dec. 11.
He said he’s going back to church again. He’s spending time in the office and leading the Wednesday night Bible study. He can’t make hospital visits yet as he must be careful to avoid any infection because his immune system is weakened due to the anti-rejection medication.
Fortner has always been a believer in organ and blood donation, but now he has a new appreciation for this incredible gift.
While he understands these are personal decisions, he encourages all believers to donate blood, as well as platelets and plasma. He also encourages every believer to register as an organ donor because he knows from personal experience that it might just save somebody’s life.
Fortner has a heightened awareness of all that he has to be thankful for.
“I’m grateful for the person who donated the liver, I’m grateful for the blood donors and I’m thankful for all of the doctors and medical staff. I’m also grateful for my church family and the countless people from literally all over the world who have been praying for me,” Fortner said.
Above everything, Fortner is quick to point people to Jesus and give God the glory for every part of his journey. “Most of all, I give God the glory and praise him for what He’s done. I really believe that He decided to start me on this path for some reason. And I’ve trusted Him, whatever the outcome.”