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My Christian life: Heart transplant inspires a life of service

A heart transplant confirms a young man’s desire to share the blessings of Jesus with others.

Three distinct moments come to mind when Pastor John and Katy Roekle knew their son Ben’s life was in jeopardy.

Ben Roekle
Ben Roekle

A grim situation

The first came when Ben was four days old. A pediatric cardiologist examined him and diagnosed five congenital heart defects. The second was when he endured his first open-heart surgery. He was just two years old at the time. Before all was said and done, it became clear that the little boy would need a pacemaker to tell his heart how to keep time. The third moment was perhaps the scariest of all. The pediatric cardiologist informed Ben’s family that all medical options for Ben had been exhausted but one—a heart transplant.

Ben, now 22 years old, remembers how incredibly challenging it was to be a kid with such dramatic medical concerns. “My oxygen saturation levels were getting lower and lower as my body grew,” he says, “to the extent that I could barely take a walk around the block without becoming exhausted. The future was looking grim for me.”

Can you imagine? A little kid is supposed to run around and climb trees, not be housebound because his heart can’t keep up. And what about Ben’s mom and dad? Any parent would agree that they would do anything to make sure their children have everything they need to live and thrive. The helplessness of that moment must have been heartbreaking, knowing there was only one more possible solution for Ben—and a risky one at that. Says John, “We were devastated thinking about this tiny blessing of ours having to endure the medical challenges that were ahead of him.”

The potential risks of the procedure aside, an even bigger problem loomed—extra hearts aren’t easy to come by! Typically, a person on the donor list will wait months or even more than a year until a suitable organ is available. This time can be even longer for children.

Ben Roekles
Left: Ben Roekle at home right before his heart transplant in 2006. Middle: The Roekle family right before Ben’s surgery. Right: Ben in the hospital a day or two after his heart transplant.

 

But God had a plan. “After only three weeks on the list, my dad pulled me out of the second-grade classroom in the middle of the day,” remembers Ben. “The doctors had a heart for me, and there was no time to waste! On Sept. 22, 2006, I received a ‘new’ heart.”

After a successful surgery, Ben was home again in just three weeks’ time. “Since the transplant, I have had no complications,” he says. “I am as healthy as any other person my age and have no limitations or restrictions at all—besides not eating grapefruit.” Ben and his family agree that grapefruit-free meals are a small price to pay for an otherwise normal life!

Ben and Mollie Roekle
Ben and Mollie Roekle

A new season

Years went by without any significant challenges, and Ben decided to go to Martin Luther College (MLC), New Ulm, Minn. He graduated this past May and recently moved to Mequon to attend Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary to continue his pursuit of becoming a pastor. He even got married in June! He and his wife, Mollie, who also went to MLC, are excited for this next season in God’s plan for their life together.

With the passing of each huge milestone—graduation, a new school, marriage, and more—Ben reflects on how the story could have gone differently all those years ago. Simply put, he feels blessed. “I’m thrilled to take the next step on my journey to become a pastor,” he says, “and I feel so blessed to have a wife who shares the same faith as me. It amazes me that Mollie is committed to me despite the risk of our children having congenital heart defects, the medically complicated future I might have ahead of me, and the baggage that it all carries.”

Mollie explains that God’s providence is what sets her worries at ease. “He’s given us medical professionals who are able to research and make advancements that have dramatically improved the success of cases like Ben’s,” she says. “I pray that if we do deal with more heart issues in the future, God would grant me the same faith, strength, and resilience that he gave to Ben’s parents. If anything, Ben’s experiences have helped turn him into the steadfast, optimistic man he is today. He is a constant light in my life.”

Ben and Mollie Roekle
Ben and Mollie Roekle

A powerful testimony

Ben’s early life had its fair share of intense challenges, and the path to become a pastor wasn’t easy either. Ben referenced countless instances along the way when he’s been struck with a stark realization that he’s only come this far by the grace of God.

“Oddly enough,” he says, “those moments usually hit me randomly when I’m deep in thought in my bedroom or driving a car. I believe I have something special always before me—a reminder of God’s grace in my life—and of his greatest grace: Jesus.”

This perspective is a big part of what motivates Ben to become a pastor. He says, “God gave me a second chance to live in two ways: physically and spiritually. I want to share that with people—that the spiritual and physical eternal life we have through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the greatest gift anyone can have.”

While Ben’s story is certainly a powerful testimony of God’s love, it’s quite possible that no one has been affected more than his parents. In the midst of the heartbreak of their son’s circumstances, they clung to God’s promises to guard and protect his children. Says John, “We knew whatever Ben faced, he was safe with Jesus. A passage that helped us was 2 Corinthians 4:17 where we read, ‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ ”

A lesson for us

So where would you turn if your whole world was flipped upside down?

God is so good—he has a plan and promises never to leave or forsake his children. We all have eternal life in our future because of Jesus. But the path of faith is not always a straight and broad one. It twists and turns in directions no human could ever predict or desire, with the simple charge of the Savior ringing through it all—“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” (cf. Luke 9:23).

The Roekles are great examples of what it means to trust God, even through some of their toughest times. When all hope was slipping away and Ben’s life was hanging in the balance, the Roekles held on to what is steadfast—God and his Word. “It is amazing how God has strengthened our family through this,” says John. “Paul’s words for Christians in Romans 8:28 continue to ring true for our family each and every day: ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ ”

Author: Cameron Schroeder
Volume 108, Number 9
Issue: September 2021

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