To look at 44-year-old Seth Wharton, an AG chaplain through AG U.S. Missions, and read about his various life and athletic accomplishments, a person might nod their heads and be fairly impressed.
But take a moment to quietly lean close to Wharton’s chest and listen intently — click-click, click-click, click-click — with the right medical knowledge, “impressed” could easily turn to astonishment.
Wharton, who played college basketball, has earned awards for weightlifting, and is a blackbelt in karate was born with heart defects that were supposed to keep him from doing any of those activities. Those defects also led to him having open heart surgeries at the ages of 1 month, 5 years, and 13 years old.
In 1990, at the age of 13, Wharton became one of the youngest people to have aortic and mitral (double-valve) replacements. And this past year, he was recognized by Guinness World Records as being the longest living survivor of that surgery, which on April 27, 2021, amounted to 31 years and 238 days — and counting.
Although being a world record holder is something Wharton is thankful for, pointing to God in gratitude, what may easily be overlooked is that “record” is decorated with multiple miracles that not only defied medical knowledge, but in some ways, rewrote it.
THE DREAM CHILD
LaVale, Maryland, residents Bob and Benay Wharton had prayed for a son — a fourth child — and God answered their prayers. But within a day of his birth, the medical staff picked up on a heart murmur.
“At that time, they weren’t doing a lot of heart surgeries on babies,” Benay says, who is a registered nurse with nearly 50 years of experience including 10 years on a cardiac stepdown unit and 30 years as a child health nurse. “Some just believed Seth would always be a sick child (due to his condition).”
But that all changed when a month later they met with Dr. Joel Brenner, a premier pediatric cardiologist. After looking at Seth’s charts, he scheduled Seth for an emergency cardiac catheterization surgery the very next day at the University of Maryland Hospital and then his first open heart surgery — Seth had aortic stenosis (narrowing of the heart artery) so severe, the doctor wasn’t sure how blood was getting to Seth’s body.
A LIFE SPARED
“I later learned that during that first open heart surgery,” Seth says, “that my heart stopped beating at least a couple of times.”
However, the then new and risky neonatal surgery (a valvotomy) was very successful; Seth didn’t show any signs of heart issues throughout his preschool years. In fact, he grew into a highly active little boy who Benay admits she had trouble slowing down.
“His activities were supposed to be restricted, but he was so full of energy and so active, it was hard to keep up with him,” she says with a laugh.
At age 5, Seth had to have another valvotomy (again to correct stenosis and valve leakage issues). However, on his way to the prestigious children’s hospital in Alabama — a long drive from Maryland — the family stopped to visit a friend, pastor Kenneth Owen, and his church in South Carolina to attend Sunday service. During the children’s program, Seth was prayed over and was filled with the baptism in the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues.
“It was like God was showing He was with us,” Seth says. “I remember being brought up in front of the church to be prayed for and the peace of God came on me (while they were praying for him).”
Following this still-risky surgery, Seth remained as active and rambunctious as ever — few had any idea that he had a heart condition.
But a little more than six years later, Seth came down with a fever that wouldn’t seem to let up. For five months the family and doctors searched for answers. They finally learned Seth had subacute bacterial endocarditis (SBE), a dangerous infection that attacks the lining of the heart valves — potentially deadly, especially for someone who already had heart valve issues.
“It had been left undiagnosed for so long that a scab formed around the valve,” Benay explains. “That scab broke free and became a clot in his kidney.”
Seth spent his 12th birthday in ICU and several additional days in the University of Maryland hospital, deemed “fortunate” to have survived. The highly active teen ended up being given a “sentence” of seven weeks of bed rest to allow the clot to dissolve and the SBE to heal.
A little over a year later, Seth was back in Alabama and in the hospital. This time for his third major open-heart procedure — a double-valve (aorta and mitral) replacement with St. Jude mechanical valves.
ANSWERS TO PRAYER
The path from newborn to teenager for Seth reads fairly simply, but the overview bypasses the miraculous truth — that God was listening and responding to prayers over and over again.
Benay, who wrote a book about the entire experience, Our Heart’s Desire is Our Littlest Miracle, says the book began as nothing more than her list of prayer requests.
“My mother (Seth’s grandmother) was a prayer warrior,” Benay says, “and every day I would write down a list of things to pray for concerning Seth and our family. She was a member of a prayer chain at her church, which would contact other prayers chains — Seth was being prayed for by churches all over the state.”
Benay says that the prayer list began when Seth spent a month in the hospital when he was just a month old. Over the weeks, she started looking back at the prayer list and began to realize how many of those prayers had been answered.
“I’d look back — Look at this! God answered that, answered this, answered that . . .,” she reflects, reliving the moment. “From then on, I decided to write down all the prayer requests and see what the Lord would do. Sometimes we take for granted what the Lord does, especially the ‘little’ things, but you know, God cares about the little things. In the midst of it all, I’ve learned to look for the blessing; even though things might not look good right now, there’s always a blessing in it and God will use it for His glory.”
When Seth had the double-valve replacement in October 1990 at the age of 13, to his doctors that marked a significant accomplishment, but it also marked increased restrictions for Seth.
“I was told I could never play sports, that I should never lift more than 100 pounds, that I could never work with my dad in his construction business, and that I should never run over a mile,” Seth recalls. He would do all those things and more!
Benay just shakes her head. The surgery may have lengthened Seth’s life, but both she and Bob wanted Seth to be able to have as normal childhood as possible; Seth was in full (and perhaps beyond) agreement.
Despite the cautions, Seth went ahead and participated in sports, playing rec and church league basketball while in high school, then making the team when he entered college.
“I also started lifting weights,” Seth says. “It became kind of a joke with Dr. Brenner and me. He’d tell me during my check-ups the things that I shouldn’t be doing, including lifting weights, and then he’d ask me, ‘So, what are you benching now?’”
Benay remembers those interactions as well.
“Dr. Brenner used to bring in his students to see Seth and hear of the remarkable things Seth was doing despite having St. Jude valves. Dr. Brenner told me that, ‘You learn from your patients — we have learned a lot from Seth.’”
Brenner explains that 30 to 40 years ago, the prevailing thought was that certain kids should not be doing certain things as the risks were too high.
“Seth turned out to be strong and resilient,” Brenner states, noting that Seth’s father and mother were his strongest advocates for normalcy. “He’d listen to medical advice, but he liked setting records; he was determined to live a normal life . . . We have come to learn that kids should make their own choices as long as there’s not an undue risk, and Seth is certainly an example of that.”
Seth’s athletic accomplishments, in light of his condition, weren’t well known among his peers, but coaches and community leaders took notice. When Seth was 14, he was presented with the Most Courageous Athlete Award at the annual sports awards dinner.
“He got to give all the glory to God at that sports dinner,” Benay says. “That was pretty amazing.”
Although Seth accomplished much as a youth, God obviously had plans in store for him. As Benay recounts, she has lost track of the number of times where God had intervened to save Seth’s life during the surgeries, recoveries, and illnesses.
In all, Seth had three open heart surgeries, six cardiac catheterizations, five blood clots, and survived the deadly subacute bacterial endocarditis.
“He was the first seriously ill high-risk patient I had when I first came to the University of Maryland (hospital),” Brenner says, “and here he is 44 years later setting world records.”
With a strong prayer life being demonstrated before him, prayer became a big part of Seth’s own personal life as well. He felt called into the ministry and, upon graduation from college, became an evangelist. Then for 10 years, he led a church, where due to his unshakable belief in the power of the Holy Spirit to heal, miracles became a common occurrence.
Yet, Seth says that he believes that his calling was still to be an evangelist. And a few years ago, God fulfilled that calling — only it was in a most unusual way.
AN UNEXPECTED DEFINITION
For many, the word “evangelist” brings images of revival services and traveling across the country, sharing God’s Word, and leading people to Christ. It’s an accurate description, but not the only one.
In 2018, in addition to speaking, Seth started working as a hospice chaplain at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Western Maryland. Hospice, which implies patients have been given days or up to a maximum of six months to live, is a difficult field as relationships built are often quickly taken away by death’s hand.
“Hospice is a constant open door,” Seth says. “I go to homes and then to the hospital, ICU and cardiology, and visit there.”
During those relationship-building visits, the topics of death and beliefs are inevitably brought up. At those times, Seth is often given the opportunity to share his faith, with people sometimes rededicating their lives or making first-time commitments to Christ.
Although that is what one might call “one-on-one” or “personal” evangelism, where God really fulfills His call on Seth’s life is following a patient’s passing.
“A lot of times people don’t have a pastor or a church they’re really connected to, so the families will ask me to do the service, which is an honor,” Seth explains. “At the services, I share the gospel and through that many, many people have responded.”
No, not a typical “evangelist” calling, but as Seth observes, he is ministering to new audiences regularly and seeing the greatest miracle of all — salvation — being experienced over and over again.
Seth’s story of his Guinness World Record and how God has worked in his life came out on the front page of the local newspaper Christmas Day 2021.
Both Seth and Benay say they were surprised by how the paper kept Seth’s faith and God as part of the story.
Since that time, the story has been picked up by several other papers and media outlets and shared to a growing audience. And somewhat to the surprise of Seth and his family, people who have known him for years are the ones most frequently contacting him and expressing how “they never knew” his story.
Seth still runs and lifts weights. He continues as a chaplain, is happy to respond to share his testimony, and he and his wife, Kendra, have four children of their own. However, through it all, Seth says that it’s his deepest desire for God to get all the glory as people are encouraged by the miracle his life has been and continues to be — it’s the very heartbeat of who he is . . . click-click, click-click, click-click.