CANTON, Ga. — He was a father of four, a loving husband, dedicated orthodontist, strong worshipper, and loyal friend. Dr. Chris Jernigan passed away from COVID-19 on Saturday at 67 years old, but his spirit lives on in all the lives he touched.
During this difficult time, his son, 26-year-old Dr. Joshua Jernigan, is remembering a saying his father used to mention.
"My dad always said, 'you can never get yesterday back. I'm not guaranteed tomorrow. So guess what, Josh? The best day of my life is right here right now. That's the only day that I have'," he recalled.
Today, he is carrying that message near and dear to his heart. Joshua said his father was a remarkable orthodontist who always took his time with each patient.
"He tried his very best to really invest in every single patient... didn't matter if he ended up getting way behind for the rest of the day. If he felt like he needed to sit down, spend an extra 25 minutes praying over a patient, that was totally fine with him," he said.
Chris was a brand new grandfather. His oldest daughter had a child four days before he passed away.
"Me only been 26, my dad being super healthy, losing him right now and it being so unexpected, is super difficult," said Joshua. "So the emotions are super, super real, like what my mom is experiencing, what my sisters are experiencing is genuine sorrow and grief that can't be explained."
Joshua said his father started feeling achy, drowsy and a dry cough. As it worsened, he had to be put on a ventilator at a local hospital. He said his father fought until the very end.
"He just kind of hit a cliff face and just dropped. There was no real rhyme or reason or good explanation for medically why since he was so healthy," he recalled. "Then it really started taking a toll on him and his breathing started getting more labored, his oxygen saturation just started decreasing. But I mean, he did a phenomenal job, and he never quit fighting to the end."
Chris' close family friends said he knew no "strangers" because he became friends with everyone he met.
With Shian Seagrist, the friendship was through the Lebanon Baptist Church in Roswell and through Dr. Jernigan's daughter, Sophie. For years, Sophie would tell Seagrist about her father and his spiritual guidance. It wasn't until meeting him shortly after, that she knew every story was accurate.
"It was very obvious that he was somebody that she treasured and valued and looked up to in her life more than just a dad," Seagrist said. "It was instantly obvious that he truly was the man of the caliber that Sophie spoke about for all those years. He really lived up to his name."
So much so, Seagrist invited Dr. Jernigan to her wedding. He sat right at the aisle and high-fived her now-husband, Jamie, as he walked back.
"That was one of like, our very special memories from that day with him being there," she recalled. "Dr. Jernigan was just so full of life, and so energetic and welcoming. Immediately we felt, because of his presence at that church, at home there."
With Nikki Vanderberg, the friendship came through family connections, the church and his orthodontist practice.
"There's no one like him," she said. "There are just so many people who had a special relationship with him and loved him. He was a family man. He was a man who was completely involved with church and took people under his wing."
He was an orthodontist in Canton for over 35 years. Now, the man who prayed for everyone, is receiving all those prayers and a lot of love right back.
"Every Sunday, he was praying with families in the church -- even for new people coming in. It's just, he was amazing. And I can't even imagine all the people that are going to miss him," said Vanderberg.
Vanderberg said Chris helped her through her journey as a single mother. She was able to take both of her daughters to his orthodontist practice.
"My youngest daughter has Down syndrome and he just was amazing with her. She loved him, and he would pick her up every Sunday at church and hug her and spin around and just give her the love that she needed so much," she added.
He graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.S. in Biology. He followed this graduating from the Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry, DMD; and St. Louis University, M.S. in Orthodontics.
He was also a member of Lebanon Baptist Church in Roswell.
"It's an odd dichotomy of I am extremely sorrowful, and sad and grieving, simultaneously the amount of joy and jubilation that I experienced knowing that my dad is in the throne room of Jesus Christ right now worshiping Him," said Joshua.
Those sentiments are echoed by family friends.
"Although we feel like his life was cut short, he spent every day of his life waiting for that final day, where he really got to go meet the person he had been worshipping and waiting for his whole life," said Seagrist. "So it's obviously devastating to lose him especially so tragically and so early and with such a big impact and so well connected in his community, but we know that he's better off than all of us. So he's lucky one."
The family will receive friends at Lebanon Baptist Church in Roswell on Friday, August 13 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The funeral will be at Lebanon Baptist Church on Saturday, August 14 at 11 a.m. with Dr. Brian Peterson officiating. Interment will follow at Macedonia Memorial Park.
They are asking for prayers and donations to the Lebanon Baptist Church Missionary Fund. To donate, click here.