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

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

Ken Gardner, who received a donor heart from Nick Longshore, hugs Nick's wife, Caroline Longshore, at her home in West Haven, Monday, June 9, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

For Caroline Longshore, it couldn’t have been a better Mother’s Day present.

The 23-year-old had been through a great deal over the past couple of years, more than most people suffer in a lifetime.

Six months earlier, Nick, her husband of three years, had been killed in a tragic ATV accident in Idaho. A year before that, the couple’s first child was stillborn despite no signs of any problems beforehand. A month before Mother’s Day, she had given birth to Hannah, an angel from heaven she says, but still a big challenge for a single mom.

On that Sunday in early May, Caroline had left church early with her newborn baby and was lying down when the phone rang. On the other end, her aunt, Jill Hall, had some exciting news for her.

“Right off the bat, she said, ‘Caroline, I know who has Nick’s heart.’ I was like ‘What?’ ’’

When Nick had died in November, several of his organs were donated, including his heart. But Caroline hadn’t thought much about it since, and didn’t know what to think about this news out of the clear blue.

“I wanted to get in contact (with the recipient) — I just didn’t think it was going to happen so soon,’’ she said.

Caroline had plans to go to her aunt's home in Bountiful that evening, as she often did on Sundays, but Hall said she had also invited the man who was the recipient of the heart transplant from her husband.

First Caroline called her father in California to see what he thought about her going to the meeting. After all, she didn’t even know for sure if it was the person who had received her husband’s heart, and didn’t know if she was ready for the meeting.

“My dad said, ‘I think this is a Mother’s Day gift from Nick, some way to show you that he’s aware that this is Mother’s Day,’ ’’ Caroline recalls her father saying.

So later that day, with much trepidation, Caroline headed down I-15 from her home in West Haven to her Aunt Jill’s house in Bountiful.

“I was so nervous, I was shaking,’’ she remembers.

The door opened and “there was this big tall man that looked just like Nick’s grandpa. He was 6-5 and had size 16 shoes, just like Nick.’’

The big guy with the full head of white hair, nearly the same size as Nick Longshore, but twice as old, was Ken Gardner, a former star basketball player for the University of Utah. Imagine that. A former Utah basketball player had received a heart from a BYU football player.

“The first thing he did was give Caroline a big bear hug, just like Nick would have,’’ recalls Julia Whipple, the sister of Nick’s father, one of two dozen relatives and friends gathered at the Halls’ house that night. “Then he put her hand on his heart and said, 'Feel that beat.’ You could have heard a pin drop — there was not a dry eye in the room.’’

Gentle giant

“He was a gentle giant,’’ is how Caroline Longshore describes her husband. “He had the biggest heart. He was the kindest person ever and would do anything for anybody. He was soft-spoken and quiet, but he spoke with his actions.’’

Nick Longshore had grown up in an athletic family in Canyon City, California, where he lettered in football, basketball and baseball. His grandfather played football for Tulane and his father played college basketball.

With his size — 6 foot 5 and nearly 300 pounds — Nick’s future was on the football field and he was recruited by the likes of Alabama, Auburn and UCLA out of high school. One younger brother, Nate, was the starting quarterback at Cal for two years, while Ben currently plays quarterback at Dixie State.

Nick ended up staying home and playing for Cal State Northridge, where he started 10 games on the offensive line as a freshman before embarking on an LDS Church mission to the Philippines.

By the time he returned, Northridge had dropped its program so he enrolled at College of the Canyons and was named first-team all-conference and a junior college academic all-American while helping his team to an 11-1 record.

Then it was off to BYU in 2004. He redshirted his first year, missed his second season with a knee injury, and earned his letter as a senior, although he was not a starter.

While he was at BYU, his father, Todd, died suddenly from a blood clot at age 49, the first of several tragedies to befall the family. For his final season, Nick wore “TL” in permanent marker on his arm to honor his father.

A couple years later, Nick met a petite brunette, Caroline Evans, at a “munch and mingle” at an LDS singles ward in Saugus, California. She had been raised in Frazier Park, a small town in the mountains an hour north of Los Angeles, and though she wasn’t a sports fan at all, she did watch a lot of sports as a cheerleader in high school.

The two hit it off and kept in touch through social media while Nick was working as a graduate assistant at UCLA and Caroline was attending LDS Business College in Salt Lake City.

Once they started dating the following summer, however, it didn’t take long for things to progress and they were married within six months, on Dec. 30, 2010, at the Los Angeles Temple.

The couple settled in northern Utah and Nick served as the interim head football coach at Woods Cross High in the summer of 2011 after the head coach suffered health problems. He later became a car salesman at the Wasatch Auto Group in North Salt Lake, where “everybody loved him,’’ said Caroline. One of Nick’s loves was cars, and his pet project was restoring a 1965 Ford Galaxy.

Tragedy strikes

Caroline Longshore is remarkably composed as she talks about her late husband and the accident that took his life.

Last November, she and Nick decided to go up to Idaho to visit her two sisters in Idaho Falls to commemorate the one-year mark of their son’s birth and passing.

It was a melancholy time for the couple, who didn’t fully understand what had happened to their first child, Colton, who was born Nov. 13, 2012.

“He was a beautiful baby boy, full-term, 7 pounds 6 ounces. He passed away for unknown reasons,’’ Caroline said

Soon after arriving, Nick joined the husbands of Caroline’s sisters for a little outing before dinner. The last thing he said to Caroline was, “I’ll be back in 20 minutes.’’

“My brothers-in-law took him four-wheeling out on the sand dunes to cheer him up and get out of the house,’’ Caroline remembers. “He flipped the four-wheeler, the front wheels got stuck and landed on him. He had a really bad concussion, 10 broken ribs and a broken pelvis. When they came back we were talking to him, but he didn’t remember anything.’’

They rushed Nick to the hospital, but he had extensive internal bleeding and he went into cardiac arrest that night. He was put in an induced coma, but after seven days when it was determined that Nick was brain dead and there was no hope, the family decided to take him off life support.

Caroline and the family hadn’t thought much about the idea of transplanting his organs. Caroline thought he was a donor — it turned out his driver’s license had a “yes” on it — but in her grief she wasn’t even thinking about harvesting his organs.

”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

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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