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

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

Updated: Sunday, June 15 2014 11:40 p.m. MDT

The usual procedure after an organ transplant is for the recipient to write a letter to the donor’s family thanking them for the sacrifice of their loved one, but no sooner than six months after the transplant. Then the donor's family has the option to reply back to the recipient if they so choose.

Undoubtedly, Caroline Longshore would have eventually discovered that Ken Gardner was the recipient of her husband’s heart. But how she did find out is another amazing part of the story.

On May 9, Gardner was having dinner with his daughter, Taylor, at the Cinegrill Restaurant in Salt Lake City. He was recognized by Gary Brockbank, who had seen him play basketball at Utah some 40 years earlier and struck up a conversation with Gardner. He soon found out that Gardner had had a heart transplant about six months earlier.

Brockbank lived in the same LDS ward as Nick Longshore’s aunt, Jill Hall, and knew the story of the former BYU player. Just after leaving the restaurant he figured out that Gardner must be the recipient and the following morning at church he told Jill, whose husband was the bishop, and his counselor John White, who also happened to be a good friend of Gardner’s.

That’s when all heck broke loose. White called Gardner from his meetinghouse with Jill Hall on speakerphone. “We know you’re the recipient’’ of Nick Longshore’s heart, she told him.

“Holy cow, it was like a lightning bolt hitting me,’’ said Gardner. “I about fell on the ground.’’

Jill Hall admits now she wasn’t 100 percent sure Gardner was the recipient, but about 99.9 percent sure because of the timing of the transplant and the similar size of the two men.

“I figured with two great big guys and it being on Nov. 22, I pretty much knew,’’ she said. It was officially confirmed two days later by Intermountain Donor Services.

It was later that evening that Gardner walked into a room of strangers at the Halls’ home and spent the next three hours “laughing and crying.’’

Gardner hadn’t been told about baby Hannah, who was brought out a few minutes after he arrived.

“I held the baby close and she was listening to her father’s heart beat for the first time,’’ said Gardner. “That was unbelievable. It was miraculous how it all happened.’’

Special bond

From the moment they met on Mother’s Day evening, Caroline Longshore and Kenny Gardner established a special bond. They exchange big hugs whenever they meet and they have a great rapport as they talk about Nick’s family or Kenny’s family or BYU football or Utah basketball.

“I love him — he’s a firecracker,’’ Caroline says. “He calls me about three times a week. He buys the most random stuff for Hannah.’’

“We had an immediate connection,’’ says Gardner. “I’m not saying like father-daughter or husband-wife — she’s just a delightful, sweet girl and we get along great.’’

Gardner’s two daughters, Baily, 21, and Taylor, 19, are like long-lost friends when they meet up with Caroline as they giggle and share photos on their smartphones with each other. They recently discovered that one of Taylor’s best friends is a missionary companion of Caroline’s younger brother in Tennessee.

Then there’s good-natured banter about the Utah-BYU rivalry.

“Thinking about how Nick played for BYU and Ken played for U. of U. basketball, it was just the weirdest thing,’’ says Caroline. “People flip out when they hear that.’’

“My Utah buddies say this can’t be right ... those BYU guys don’t have a heart,’’ says Gardner with a hearty chuckle.

But he gets serious and choked up when he talks about what it meant to get a healthy heart from Nick Longshore.

“He’s a hero who saved my life — I know that,’’ Gardner says.

“Sometimes I’ll be staring at pictures that I have of that first day we met and think how Nick’s heart is just inches away physically,’’ says Caroline.

Gardner is so thankful for his new heart and new lease on life that he has started a 501(c)(3) foundation called Ken Gardner Hearts 4 Hearts. The two main goals of the foundation are to raise awareness for organ donations and to raise money for children and families of organ donors. He’s hoping to have a kickoff luncheon with some former NBA stars later this year with Caroline, of course, as one of the speakers.

“I feel better than I’ve felt in 30 years,’’ Gardner says. “I was dying a year ago. Now I’m lucky to have this healthy, strong BYU football player’s heart. Everything else will wear out, but not this heart."

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