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The desire of his heart

By Kirk Noonan

It’s midnight when the heart-lung bypass machine in Operating Room 15 whirs to life, as the respirator falls silent and a diseased heart is extracted from the patient. Jim Long, the 49-year-old surgeon, knows there is no turning back — the life of his patient is hanging in the balance. With skillful precision Long and other members of his surgical team transplant a donor heart into the patient.

As the hours pass, Long orchestrates the transfer of scalpels, scissors, hemostats, needle drivers and clamps. When the last sutures are in place, the team peers intently over their surgical masks. The moment they’ve been waiting for has arrived. The aortic cross-clamp is released and blood flows into the newly transplanted heart. Almost instantly the heart contracts before taking a long pause, then beats again and again.

Jim and Bonnie Long with their sons Mark, Paul and Daniel. "Balancing career and family is the toughest challenge I face," says Long.

"No matter how many times I have performed this operation I am inspired and humbled by this miracle created by the Almighty," says Long, who graduated from Evangel University and attends Salt Lake Christian Center (Assemblies of God) in Salt Lake City, Utah, (Arvin Haynes, pastor). "To think that I get to be a small part of it makes me say, ‘Wow!’ "

With the transplant complete and the patient recovering in the Intensive Care Unit, Long reflects on the day’s accomplishments and says a prayer of gratitude before slipping away for a brief rest — his day started 22 hours earlier.

Less than four hours later he calls his wife, Bonnie, to check in and then begins scrubbing for a coronary artery bypass operation. Before he enters the operating room — as is his custom — he pauses and asks God for wisdom and a steady hand. "Every day is an opportunity to touch a life with the gifts God has given me," he says. "I live with an awesome sense of responsibility to use wisely the resources that have been placed in my hands — a lot depends on that."

Each year 250,000 people in the United States die of heart failure. Long, a cardiothoracic surgeon, has spent much of his adult life battling deadly heart disease. As director of the Utah Artificial Heart Program in Salt Lake City, he leads a team that is developing a revolutionary magnetically suspended, artificial heart pump that could eventually save thousands of lives each year.

Heart surgery for advanced disease can sometimes be a battle for life. Dealing with the loss of a patient, says Long, is one of the most taxing aspects of his work. "It can be emotionally challenging — especially when I have poured my heart and soul into someone I have come to relate to very personally," he says. "But seeking peace during those times, especially with the loved ones, is part of the human and spiritual experience I wouldn’t miss. As I do that, I gain the strength to move on with courage to the next challenge."

Though Long says he feels called by God to be a surgeon — which absorbs much of his time — he has not allowed his calling to consume his life. "Balancing career and family is the toughest challenge I face," he admits. "I have no doubt I have been called to a demanding career. But the constant juggling of priorities that is required is guided by my belief that my family is every bit as important as anything in my professional life."

Long, born in Pittsburgh, Pa., moved to India when he was 8 with his missionary parents, Jim and Velma Long. There he learned many valuable lessons that shaped who he is today. "When I was a child our family had to make some significant sacrifices," he says. "My parents made sure I understood this because I participated in those sacrifices. But I also shared in any measure of success my parents and we as a family had, which allowed me to view the sacrifices I made as doing my part."

Long’s childhood experiences have shaped the values of his family today. He and Bonnie, a registered nurse and daughter of missionaries Mark and Huldah Buntain, have been married for 26 years. They have three sons: Mark, 21, Daniel, 17, and Paul, 14. "Our family is committed to each other’s success," he says. "My children know my successes are theirs just as their successes are mine. Because of this we succeed as a family and share the good times as well as bear challenges together."

To meet those challenges Jim and Bonnie work to keep the family close. "There is no doubt that time management is crucial for all of us," says Bonnie. "But we have learned how to value what is important to each family member and respect it. When one plays a sport or [acts] in a play we all attend and cheer."

"Bonnie is the fabric that holds us all together," Jim says. "My highest priority is to make our relationship enjoyable and profitable because I know that spills over onto the family. Her role as the family coordinator is as important as anything I do. I could not maintain a challenging and time-consuming career and meet my responsibilities to the family without her efforts."

Prayer and communication with one another, says Long, are keys to their family. "Our time together is limited, but we have learned to value that time and make it productive and efficient."

He also recognizes the importance of staying spiritually fit. During church services he takes notes on his Palm Pilot so he can study Bible verses and his pastor’s sermons throughout the week. He also utilizes audio teaching tapes in the car and computer software and the Internet for biblical research at home.

"People who are at peace are better prepared to serve people and influence the world around them," says Long. "My life would not be complete without spiritual, emotional and intellectual fulfillment. The balance and insight that result from those things allow me to be a better leader."

Part of that balance also comes from working with the Assemblies of God and Mission of Mercy, offering assistance once or twice a year at a large mission in Calcutta, India. The multi-faceted mission incorporates churches, a school system, social outreach programs, a hospital, clinics and a nursing school. "Our primary focus is with the medical ministry," says Long. "We really enjoy giving of our talents to this wonderful humanitarian cause within an environment with great needs. Beyond that, this is a great opportunity to provide for spiritual needs, as the love of Christ is demonstrated through compassionate ministry to the whole man."

Though his life resembles that of a doctor in a best-selling medical novel — he races to save lives in the middle of the night and stands humbly on the frontier of medical science — Long keeps it all in perspective. "High-tech medicine can seem pretty glamorous, but it is no more important than touching a life with a smile, a word of encouragement or the sharing of God’s love," he says. "As Christians, we are all called to be ministers of the love of Christ — some through pulpits, some through professions that can be considered glamorous or routine — but all equally important to the Kingdom."

Long’s advice for dads on this Father’s Day: "The greatest gifts parents can give their children are the tools and self-confidence to lead successful lives balanced by physical, intellectual, social and spiritual fulfillment. And they should impart to their children that they, with the Lord’s help, can accomplish great things."

Kirk Noonan is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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