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Lee Benson, Deseret News
Ray and Deidra Groth.

SALT LAKE CITY — No offense to his wife, Deidra, who weighs the same as she did when they started dating in ninth grade and who competes in cross-country skiing races same as him, but Ray Groth knew something just wasn’t right when he looked up the hill and there, ahead of him, was something he was completely unaccustomed to seeing: his wife’s backside.

And he couldn’t catch up.

Ray Groth
A year after his successful heart transplant, Ray and Deidra Groth sent out this "Back in the Saddle" Christmas card in December of 2018.

Life has its pivotal moments. This was one of them. Ray didn’t know what was wrong, but something was. He’d felt it coming on for awhile, a shortness of breath, some dizziness, what could only be described as a power outage. At first he thought maybe his vest was too tight. But he loosened it and it didn’t help. He thought he’d gotten out of shape. But he’d never been out of shape.

Finally he went to see Dr. Roger Freedman, a heart specialist at the University of Utah. An EKG showed his heart was in flutter, meaning the upper chambers were beating faster than the lower chambers. That led to an EKG, which led to a biopsy, which led to the conclusion that Ray had a rare genetic disease called amyloidosis. His liver was producing abnormal proteins called amyloids that were depositing plaque directly into his heart, causing severe, irreversible damage.

To stay alive he needed a new heart.

* * *

To anyone who knew Ray Groth even a little bit, the news that he had a bad heart was greeted with the kind of incredulity reserved for someone telling you the sun just rose in the west or Donald Trump voted Democrat.

“Ray needs a heart transplant!” one of his longtime coaching friends announced in disbelief in the locker room after he heard the news. “There’s no hope for any of us.”

That’s because in all his life, Ray had never stopped working out. Aerobic exercise was as much a part of his existence as eating and sleeping. He never neglected his heart. At first it came with the territory. He was a gifted athlete in football and track in his hometown of Idaho Falls before moving to Salt Lake City to play football for the University of Utah, where he was the starting quarterback and was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970 NFL Draft.

The Cardinals cut him, ending his playing career, so he became a coach, starting out at high schools in Idaho and then stints at the University of Washington and the University of Idaho before returning to Utah and coaching at various times at Skyline, Granger, Highland, Park City, Judge Memorial and Tooele. (Today, he’s on the staff at Highland High.)

As he transitioned from player to coach, Ray never stopped exercising. His workouts just became more aerobic in nature. He started running long distances. His older brother Richard, who once skied (and played quarterback) for the University of Utah, got him into cross-country skiing. Now he had the winters covered as well as the summers.

" If I keep working at it I have a few good years left. I mean I’ll never be back where I was, but my new goal is just to try and keep up with Deidra. "
Ray Groth

When a knee replacement ended his running days, he bought a road bike.

“I don’t know if you call it a hobby or what, but everyday I try to do something; always have,” says Ray.

“He always had to get his workout in,” agrees Deidra, rolling her eyes as she remembers all the times Ray sat down to dinner after the rest of the family was finished.

And thank goodness for that, she quickly adds, because those workouts meant the boy she started dating back in 1962 at O.E. Bell Junior High School in Idaho Falls, the person she says “I don’t know what I’d do without,” was there to help her celebrate their golden anniversary last June.

The lifestyle that made Ray late for dinner saved his life.

* * *

Normally, a person past the age of 65 doesn’t get considered for a heart transplant. The chances of recovery are just too slim.

Ray was 70 when he went on the list.

But the more the doctors at the U. transplant unit learned about Ray the more they went to bat for him. Freedman, Dr. Edward Gilbert, Dr. Craig Selzman, Dr. Josef Stehlik and Dr. Jose Nativi-Nicolau petitioned the transplant board to make him an exception to the rule.

“At the end of the day the whole committee agreed that because of his robust physical capacity, his family support and his positive attitude he would do well after heart transplant surgery,” says Nativi-Nicolau.

“It’s not something we can offer to every patient who is 70 years old, but he was not a common 70-year-old. He’s definitely an outlier.”

Lee Benson
Heart transplant survivor Ray Groth with his "Never Ever Give Up" model that gives him inspiration.

Ray spent five weeks in the fall of 2017 in the hospital waiting and hoping for a helicopter to land on the roof with his new heart. Above his bed and on his nightstand he had a poster and a model of a frog with its head in a pelican’s mouth and its hands around its throat. Underneath was the caption: Never Ever Give Up.

Someone had given Ray the poster years ago and he decided it perfectly summed up his approach to life. He often shared it with his football teams. Now he was using it for himself.

Finally, on Nov. 30, he got the word. A young man named Brian Housley, just 28 years old, was shot by mistake during a drive-by shooting in Ogden and his parents were donating his organs to waiting recipients.

Within minutes, Ray was in the operating room. Early on the morning of Dec. 1 he awoke with his new heart.

He was out of the hospital in six days — record time, especially for his age division.

There have been complications and challenges in the year and four months since the surgery: rejection issues, a diminished immune system. pneumonia and influenza (at the same time), and you should see the suitcase full of pills Ray has to take daily.

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But there have also been a year and four months worth of sunrises and sunsets — and many, many more bike rides and cross-country ski races.

“I’ve got a young heart from a fantastic young man,” says Ray, who records his heart beat so Brian’s parents can listen to their son’s heart.

“If I keep working at it I have a few good years left,” he says as he looks at his wife of nearly 51 years. “I mean I’ll never be back where I was, but my new goal is just to try and keep up with Deidra.”