After surviving COVID-19 and a double lung transplant, LaFollette pastor Zach Lloyd is eager to return home
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — When a local television station in Nashville aired footage of pastor Zach Lloyd recently leaving Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital, probably few people realized they were witnessing another one of God’s infinite miracles.
But that really is the only explanation for how Lloyd, pastor of East LaFollette Baptist Church in LaFollette, was able to leave after 175 nights in hospitals and a double lung transplant.
While Lloyd is quick to praise the care he received during his illness, he is even quicker to point out that “God moved in ways that defy medical explanation.
“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.”
Lloyd also will never forget that he is living proof of the power of prayer. “Words can never express the gratitude for the prayers people have prayed for me and my family over the past seven months,” he said.
“The medical staff did a great job 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.”
Though out of the hospital, Lloyd has to stay in Nashville for several more weeks for lab work and clinics 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.
Lloyd recently shared his amazing journey during a phone interview with the Baptist and Reflector. He does not personally remember all that happened between October and Christmas but he has since learned his story from doctors and medical personnel.
A sinus infection
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 175 days 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 to Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge. All the hospitals in Knoxville were at full capacity. He had to leave LaFollette because he needed more oxygen.
“I didn’t realize the full scope of my illness until I had been at the hospital in Oak Ridge. 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 “It was scary for him to be that sick.”
Through it all, Sara continued her job at the hospital in LaFollette, spent time as she could with Zach and attended most of her children’s school events. She noted that 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.
On Oct. 24, he was transferred to the Vanderbilt COVID-19 ICU in Nashville. Lloyd 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. Some would say they “just happened to be there at the right time.”
Lloyd firmly disagrees. “God placed them there at that exact moment because He knew what was going to happen.”
The doctor was able to quickly reattach the tube and Lloyd survived.
Double lung transplant
It soon became apparent that the only way for Lloyd to recover was to have a double lung transplant, not your typical hospital surgery.
“He’s a big win for everybody,” she told the television station.
While in the hospital Lloyd developed a rapport with many of his medical workers, especially Dr. McPherson who had lost a brother. She told Lloyd that before he died he wrote notes and letters to many of his family and friends.
Before his surgery on Jan. 28, she asked him if he wanted to do the same and he answered that he would. Lloyd recalled that it took all day and into the night to write his letters.
Prior to the surgery, McPherson came by to explain the surgery. Lloyd, who was unable to talk at the time, asked her to do him a favor on a handwritten note. The favor was to deliver his cards if something happened.
He also wrote: “I have a considerable peace that during this procedure God will show up and show out. I know that you are great at what you do and are capable but I know God will do something spectacular.
“Put these letters in your desk and when you think there is no hope or that you can’t make it, take one of those letters out and be reminded of God’s faithfulness.”
McPherson promised him that she would. Lloyd said he was able to speak with her about two weeks before he left the hospital and she told him she still had the letters and that when the hard times come, she would do what he had asked.
Lloyd also had an unexpected miracle even before his surgery. One of the hardest things Lloyd had to deal with during his hospital stay was that he could not see his children in person.
He eventually was able to be with Sara, but for several weeks, while he was still in COVID ICU, she could only look at him through a window in his room.
He thought it would be after his surgery before he would see his children, Lily and Titus, but Sara was able to get permission for them to visit their dad five days before his surgery.
“Being able to see them was a big pick me up from an emotional and psychological perspective,” he recalled.
Still a Minister
Though extremely sick and confined to his hospital bed, Lloyd could not help but be a pastor to the hospital staff who were in constant contact with him. As he developed relationships, staff would stop by to visit and they would talk about faith and spiritual growth, he said.
Keep in mind these people were constantly seeing people with COVID-19 and seeing people die on a consistent basis, he said, acknowledging that he was “a counselor” at times.
His illness “opened doors to show my faith and help and give hope and strength” to others, he added. And, it was a two-way street, he said. “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.”
As he prepares to return home in a few months, he is overwhelmed by the people and churches who ministered to him and his family during a time of great need.
“How can you ever pay that back?” he said.
He said the last seven months have taught him to “look for ways that I can be a blessing to someone else” and to look for ministry opportunities to step outside the box and share the love of Jesus Christ.
“So many people did that for us in ways I cannot explain,” Lloyd said.
In addition to returning to his family, he is anxious to return to his church family who have prayed and supported him and his family the entire time.
Lloyd noted their care for them has expanded throughout the community as they have discovered needs and prayed for others around them. “That excites me 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 affirmed. “I have a passionate desire to tell people about a saving God and a loving Jesus,” he said.
“I’m not going to stop doing what God has called me to do.” B&R