Ex-Ute gets gift of life with new heart from former BYU football player

Published: Sunday, June 15 2014 10:45 p.m. MDT

”We were going to take him off life support and were literally taking everything off when a nurse came in and said, ‘Wait.’ ’’

Someone from Intermountain Donor Services in Salt Lake wanted to know if the family would consider donating his organs. They agreed and filled out the paperwork.

Heart transplant

Ken Gardner grew up in Clearfield where he was an all-state basketball player, leading Clearfield High to the state championship.

The nephew of former Utah all-American Vern Gardner, he went to the University of Utah, where he played for legendary basketball coach Jack Gardner. He teamed with Mike Newlin to win 46 games in three years and was first-team all-Western Athletic Conference as a senior.

After being cut by the Phoenix Suns, Gardner headed overseas to play for a professional team in France that included the father of current NBA star Tony Parker. He played seven years in France and won a couple of French championships before returning to Utah (he used his language skills during the 2002 Olympics to serve as IOC President Jacque Rogge’s personal assistant). He worked for Western Airlines and Delta Airlines for 20 years before retiring in 2001.

Gardner doesn’t know how his heart problems began. He had been a professional athlete who kept himself in good shape, but soon after his retirement he began suffering from heart failure, although he didn’t know that’s what it was for a few years.

“There was some family history involved. My dad had a valve replaced. Otherwise, it was all that rich French food I ate for seven years,’’ he said with a laugh.

In 2004, Gardner suffered a heart attack and later had triple bypass surgery. In 2010 he received a pacemaker. Still, he continued to go downhill.

“I got sicker and sicker,’’ he said. “Then in December 2012 they decided I needed a heart transplant.’’

A month later he had an LVAD pump inserted into his chest to keep his heart pumping and keep Gardner alive as he waited for a transplant.

A few months later, of all things, Gardner was diagnosed with colon cancer, which meant he wasn’t eligible for a transplant because of his decreased immune system. But in what he calls one of the many “miracles” he has experienced in the past couple of years, the cancer disappeared as fast as it came and by the fall he was cancer-free.

For a couple of years, Gardner was on Social Security disability after having a heart attack, bypass surgery, two artificial hip replacements, a pacemaker, the LVAD pump as well as colon cancer.

“I was pretty much a mess,’’ he said. “I just sat on the couch and watched the Kardashians.’’

Last Nov. 21, Gardner was having his routine monthly clinic visit at the IHC hospital in Murray. It was nearly 6 p.m. and although he wasn’t yet on the 30-day heart transplant list, he was told “don’t go very far because as we speak, we are evaluating a potential heart.” Ten minutes after going home, he was told to return to the hospital and prepare for a heart transplant.

“My name popped because I was 6-5, 280 pounds, there weren’t a lot of people waiting on the list the same size as Nick Longshore. So that’s how it happened so fast.’’

Gardner met with his surgeon, Dr. William Caine, at the IHC hospital at 10 p.m., and was told the surgery was on for 2 a.m.

“They split my chest open and in comes the heart and after a 12-hour surgery I had a new heart,’’ he said. “Everything has checked out amazingly well ever since. I have a strong heart with no signs of rejection.’’

Laughing and crying

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