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Teen's Near Death Results in Life for Pastor

Spurred by a teen's near death, Executive Pastor Jason Yarbrough had several staff members trained in CPR — not knowing the life they would save was his.
When a member of the Real Life Church youth group in Sacramento, California, nearly drowned on a warm summer’s day in 2013, he unknowingly played a pivotal part in saving the life of Jason Yarbrough, the church’s executive pastor.

Jessie Armstrong, then the youth pastor for Real Life Church, remembers the day that 13-year-old Eric Harden nearly died. While playing a relay game in the lake with the youth group during a camping trip, Harden inexplicably passed out. Armstrong says they estimate Harden was under water for as long as two minutes before he was found and rushed to the shoreline.

“Then this Navy Seal guy appears out of nowhere, hits Eric on the chest once real hard, and he started to breathe — he saved Eric’s life,” she recalls. “It was all so surreal.”

Now the executive pastor at Real Life Church, Armstrong, 39, looks back at what could have been a horrible tragedy, and thanks God for His provision in saving Harden’s life. But she says that near-tragedy didn’t go by without a response.

Yarbrough learned of the close call and met with Scott Hagan, formerly the senior pastor and now president of North Central University, to explore the possibility of all the staff being trained in CPR. At the time, the church was in a large campus remodel and expansion, so they ultimately settled on starting out with covering the children by having Sean Marshall, the children’s pastor; Caleb Sanders, a children’s leader; and Armstrong as youth pastor, be certified in CPR.

It was New Year’s Eve 2013. Everyone but Yarbrough and two other staff members had already left for the holiday. Yarbrough was saying a final good-bye to one staff member as she was resigning and moving back to the Midwest to be closer to family.

“She says that halfway through the conversation I threw my head backward as if to laugh, then stood up straight, slumped against the wall, and then fell to the floor,” Yarbrough says. “In short, I had a cardiac arrest.”

The woman began yelling for help. Armstrong, who was finishing up some paperwork in her office heard the commotion and came quickly from her office. Meanwhile, two other staff members had unexpectedly returned to the building to pick up something forgotten.

The “miracle?” The two other staff members who happened to return were Marshall and Sanders. Now all three CPR-trained leaders were by Yarbrough’s side. As Armstrong called 9-1-1, Marshall performed CPR and Sanders counted out loud the time between compressions.

“I remembered going into his office and he was on the floor, his face was gray,” Armstrong says. “But after the first compression, and the blood started moving, you could see some color come back into his face.”

When the ambulance arrived, EMTs hit Yarbrough with the paddles twice while in the office and once while in the ambulance when he coded. At the time he was shocked the third time, he was still intubated. That shock was so intense that it caused him to bite down on the tube hard enough to knock out four of his teeth.

Yarbrough was in a coma for a day and a half and a total of eight days in the hospital. During that time, doctors implanted a defibrillator (ICD) to help regulate his heart. “They told me it would be at least six months to a year until I felt like myself again,” Yarbrough says. “They were right – it took about a year until I had my normal energy back.”

But due to the quick reactions of the staff, Yarbrough came through the experience with no brain damage or physical problems. Doctors later learned that the attack was brought on by a combination of Long QT Syndrome (the length of time between electrical impulses that cause the chambers of the heart to beat) and stress (which he was under a significant amount at the time). Previously an unknown syndrome in his family genetics, the discovery helped identify the same issue in one of his daughters, a sister, and his mother, which may help them avoid a similar experience.

Although Yarbrough says he didn’t see a tunnel with a light or anything like that, he says he did receive a very clear message from God as he came out of his coma: “Instead of wishing for something else, be content where I have you now.”

Yarbrough, admits prior to that moment, he had not been completely fulfilled as an executive pastor and was wanting to return to a senior pastorate. God also gave him 2 Kings 4:4 and 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. The first communicating to him (shut the door behind you) that sometimes there are issues that need to be settled between just you and God, while the second passage was about admitting and even celebrating his weaknesses so the power of God can be clearly on display.

He embraced those passages and chose to live in contentment and proclaim God’s power in his weakness. Today, Yarbrough is the senior pastor at Monterey Bay Christian Center in Seaside, California.

“I later was able to speak in youth when Eric was there,” Yarbrough says in appreciation. “I told him that God used his own ordeal to prepare the people who would later save my life. God used his negative circumstances to save me. It’s amazing how God causes all things to work together for good.”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.