The Oates

Jim Oates, pictured with his wife Debra, is doing well following a double lung transplant.

Doctors told Jim Oates he had 48 hours to live before he went on a ventilator—unless some lungs became available for a double lung transplant. 

Chances seemed slim.

He was 66 years old and sick for three years with dermatomyositis, an inflammatory disease that decimated his lungs. It progressed as doctors predicted.

The first year after diagnosis in 2016, he was short of breath. The second year he needed oxygen. The third year, he was totally dependent on oxygen, too sick to walk and in desperate need of a lung transplant.

It was a huge change for a strapping, active businessman who built successful companies, a pilot who donated his time and plane to get people to emergency medical care, a counselor, a minister on call at Southeast Christian Church, a decision guide who discipled those ready to follow Jesus, a board member for many nonprofits.

He’d settled the “Why me?” question when first diagnosed. At the time, he was working 60-plus hours a week as executive director of Awake, a ministry in Shelbyville where Oates worked with those struggling with addiction, prison records and joblessness.

Wrestling with that question didn’t last long.

“I realized God didn’t have anything to do with it,” Oates said. “Sickness and disease are a result of sin. Mine included. I told God I was sorry and reminded Him of the promise that He would never leave me or forsake me. That moment, He took away the fear of death.”

Oates thought about how easy it was to follow Jesus when everything was going well. He was determined to honor God living in the shadow of death.

“I felt God was saying it was time for me to live my faith and not just talk about it,” he said. “I began to see that I was probably being watched by others, some who might be on the fence when it comes to their salvation, to see how I would handle this situation and if my faith was real.”

Faced with 48 hours to live, Oates asked his wife, Debra, and his family to call people to pray.

“I believed God could still do a miracle,” he said.

Later that May afternoon, the doctor returned to Oates’ room with good news.

“We found your lungs,” he said. “They are high risk—from a prisoner on life support.”

Despite the high-risk part, it seemed so right. For years, Oates had been leading Bible studies and mentoring men in prison. Now one of them could save his life.

Twenty people were in the operating room when they wheeled Oates in for the 10-hour surgery. As the anesthesiologist put him to sleep, Oates prayed the Lord’s Prayer, then Psalm 23 and some other Scriptures he had memorized.

Two days later, he awakened from a medically-induced coma, and his new lungs began to breathe on their own. Six weeks later, doctors allowed Oates, an avid golfer, to chip and putt at the golf course. The eighth week, he could half-swing short irons.

As he tells his story, Oates often challenges people to “live as though you were dying.”

“If you treated each person in your path as if you were dying, it would change everything,” he said. “I believe we would be kinder, more forgiving, more eager to listen, less controlling, bolder to talk about Jesus. The truth is we are dying every day! None of us are guaranteed tomorrow.”

Oates lives each day with profound gratitude. It’s not unusual for tears to run down his face as he thinks of God’s blessings, grace and forgiveness.

“I’m so grateful to be alive,” he said. “I live a new normal, but that’s OK. I have to pace myself, wear a mask when I’m in public and take meds to control rejection.”

He describes life now as a “no-lose” situation.

“When I think deeply about it all now, I realize that I am and have been in a no-lose situation,” he said. “Through suffering I have deepened my walk with God. I have been given a second chance at life here on earth, and if I hadn’t made it, I would now be in heaven. My goal is to be faithful and to finish strong.”