By D.A. WILKINSON
VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR
George C. Welker Jr. wanted his faith in Jesus to encourage others, and he succeeded despite his death Thursday.
The 32-year-old Columbiana resident and Vindicator sportswriter died about 5:40 p.m. in University Hospitals in Cleveland from medical problems that followed his lung transplants in 2000.
The cause of death was not known. The family gave permission for an autopsy to gain medical knowledge that could help others.
George chronicled in a series of newspaper stories how his Christian beliefs sustained him during the transplants to overcome cystic fibrosis.
Cystic fibrosis is a birth defect that clogs lungs with mucus. His oldest sister, Sherry, died of CF on Mother's Day in 1978 before transplants became common.
On Monday, the newspaper was notified the series had won an award for best religion/values coverage for 2000 from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists.
Setback: George, at that point, was heavily sedated and on a machine that breathed for him. He hemorrhaged in his throat late Saturday night where an oxygen tube had been inserted.
In May, a virus attacked George's lungs. His left lung was heavily damaged and was not expected to recover. The University of Southern California's lung transplant unit said this week it would operate if George regained his strength.
People from George's church, Abundant Life Fellowship in New Waterford, as well as other friends and relatives, were beginning to get on a list of potential donors for a fourth transplant.
People were inspired by the strength he showed in what became a medical odyssey.
Quest for new lungs: He first sought at University Hospitals a transplant of lungs from someone who had died. A transplant was canceled at the last minute in April 2000 because the donor lungs were too badly damaged.
As his health declined and no cadaveric lungs became available, George turned to the USC program that transfers a lung lobe from each of two living donors.
He underwent the operation July 19. The donors were Steve Wellman, a man from Abundant Life, and Patrick J. McGrath, a friend from college.
George was hours away from leaving the hospital when doctors discovered holes in the right lung. Three efforts to patch them failed.
George underwent a transplant of a third lobe Sept. 6. Ian Chamberlain, another member of Abundant Life, was the donor.
At that time, the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees transplants in the United States, said that only 17 people had more than one living lung transplant between 1991 and 1999.
Despite his illness, George was more active than many people. He skied before -- and after -- his transplants, and enjoyed golf. He said he had put a great deal of study into creating a great golf swing.
Sharing his faith: George saw the operation as a chance to share his faith with others, rather than a life-saving measure.
In the first story in the series, George wrote, "The strength I display is because of my relationship with Christ. I believe that through him, I/we can do anything. I believe my mission in life is to be an encouragement to others, showing people that any obstacle can be overcome with Jesus."
George was a deacon at the church before the surgery, appearing at one meeting wheeling an oxygen tank. Earlier this year, he was voted chairman of the deacon board.
George's pastor, Donald Stevenson, said George was an example to others.
"He was all heart," Stevenson said. "He didn't have the body to back it up, but he had the heart of a lion. He left a witness that will go on."
Despite the shortness of George's life after the transplants, Stevenson said, "He beat the odds. He got another year from those lungs."
George was comfortable with his mortality, since he believed death would bring him life with Jesus. He was sustained by his favorite Scripture, the prophecy in Isaiah 40:31: "But they that await upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint."
He leaves his parents, George and Betty Welker, and an older sister, Kim Fay, all of Columbiana, and many other relatives.
Calling hours, services: Calling hours are from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday at the church, 46469 state Route 46. The church has canceled its regular 7 p.m. Sunday service.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Monday in the church. Arrangements are being handled by Warrick-Kummer Funeral Home in Columbiana.
The family requests contributions be made to the Children's Lung Foundation, 2300 Overlook Road, No. 406, Cleveland Heights, OH 44106.