"I thank God I'm alive," says Rev. Bracken Foster of Newcomerstown. "No one thinks a healthy forty-something man is going to get an illness and die, but it almost happened to me." Bracken is pastor at Christ United Methodist church in Newcomerstown. He is married and has five young children.

He first got sick on December 26, 2017.

"Our family had a great Christmas, but I woke up in the night with a fever," Bracken said. Over the next three weeks he would have chills, fevers, and was unable to sleep. Bracken said, "I thought I had some strange strain of the flu."

After three weeks of doctoring, Bracken was admitted to Aultman Hospital in Canton on Jan. 13. At first doctors thought he had pneumonia, but they quickly dismissed that diagnosis. Besides the chills and fevers, the next problem doctors noticed was low blood count numbers. Doctors wanted to find the cause, so they planned a bone marrow tap.

Bracken notes, "I knew it was a painful procedure and I was nervous about it, so I asked my wife Kimberly to contact our church and some of our friends to pray." It was the first of many prayer requests over the next few weeks. "I did get an answer to my prayer. I was feverish and don't remember much about the bone morrow procedure, but I didn't have any pain or even a bruise."

Even after this procedure the doctors were not sure what was wrong. Bracken's chills and fevers continued to get worse and worse.

"By this time I was so hot with fever that I remember little of what was happening to me. What few memories I have are of my wife reading the Bible to me and praying over me," said Bracken. "God's promises calmed my spirit at a time when I was getting very anxious."

By Thursday, Jan. 19, the doctors finally had a diagnosis. Pastor Foster had disseminated histoplasmosis. Histoplasmosis is a fungal infection of the lungs that is caught by breathing in dust that contains decaying bat guano or bird droppings. As much as 90% of the population in the Ohio River Valley system will contact histoplasmosis during their lifetime with the result of respiratory symptoms and cough that quickly goes away without any long-term problems. But Bracken had disseminated histoplasmosis, a far worse condition that occurs in 1 of 2,000 histoplasmosis cases. When histoplasmosis disseminates it spreads to other parts of the body besides the lungs.

That Thursday Bracken's histoplasmosis had begun shutting down his lungs, a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS. Doctors quickly sedated him and put him on a ventilator. He was still experiencing severe chills and fevers. On that Friday his temperature reached nearly 107 degrees. Unable to get his condition under control, doctors decided to Life Flight Bracken to the Cleveland Clinic on Saturday, Jan. 21.

Kimberly remembers vividly the Cleveland Clinic doctor sitting her down and telling her that her husband had a 25 to 30 percent chance of dying of ARDS. Again requests for prayer went out to many churches.

"The response was unbelievable," Kimberly remembers. It wasn't just our church that prayed, but churches all over the area. Word spread about Bracken and our family throughout the United States and even to places like Cuba, Germany, Japan, and Jerusalem." Bracken added, "And God answered those prayers. My health started to stabilize soon after people started praying."

It was a long slow journey to recovery, though the doctors said it was a miracle how fast Bracken has recovered. He stayed in a coma and on a ventilator until Feb. 1.

"It was the strangest sensation coming out of sedation and feeling the ventilator," Bracken recalled. "I couldn't get my breath. I was so glad to get it out." For Kimberly the worse part of the ordeal was when Bracken was sedated on the ventilator, but for Bracken that first week after waking up was a time of confused emotions. "I woke up and had no idea what had happened to me, where I was, or how close to death I had come," Bracken said. "I was an emotional mess."

After all that had happened Bracken was very weak. In his first week out of the ICU he went from being too weak to push the call button to get help from a nurse to being able to take a few steps with the physical therapist. He would leave the Cleveland Clinic on Feb. 17.

"The doctors, and especially the nurses were wonderful at the Cleveland Clinic," Bracken said. "But I think next time I will find a better February vacation location than Cleveland," he jokes. "I was so glad to see my kids again after five weeks in the hospital. My extended family and church were instrumental in caring for my children during my sickness." After physical therapy at Dover, Ohio's Union hospital Healthplex, Bracken finally returned to work on May t. He notes, "The first time I stood to preach was very emotional for me and for my congregation." That sermon can be viewedon the website for Newcomerstown Christ United Methodist Church.

"I have so many reasons to be thankful," Bracken remembers. "God answered our prayers. My wife is not a widow. My children have their father. Kimberly was amazing as she worked with doctors, nurses, and insurance. My parents and siblings spent many hours and several nights by my bedside. My in-laws moved into my house to care for my children. My church held prayer vigils. Other churches covered my family with a spiritual blanket of prayer. My community raised money to help our medical finances. We received hundreds of cards through the mail and many notes of encouragement over FaceBook. I am blessed!"

But Rev. Foster can't pass up a chance to preach, noting, "We are blessed, so that we can be a blessing to others!"