Heart to transplanted heart:

Former UNLV soccer star reaching out to Gondo

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Leila Navidi

Simon Keith, who played for the Rebels soccer team with a transplanted heart, says he wants Glen Gondrezick to know he’s there for him when his surgery high subsides.

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They were stars in different sports a decade apart. But anybody who had seen Glen Gondrezick and Simon Keith play ball for UNLV would probably say they played with heart.

In Keith’s case, it was somebody else’s heart.

Hardly anybody knew that until about a year ago, when the Sun’s Rob Miech revealed that Keith had undergone a heart transplant at age 21 — before he embarked on a career as a high-scoring soccer center forward for Barry Barto’s Rebels.

Ten years before, Gondrezick also had been a high-scoring forward — for UNLV’s first Final Four basketball team. He received a transplanted heart at UCLA Medical Center 10 days ago that saved his life.

I told Keith that when I talked to Gondo two days after his surgery, you wouldn’t have even known he was sick. He sounded like he had just hit the lottery — and, I suppose, he had done even better than that, because how do you put a dollar figure on the profound generosity of a total stranger whose untimely death provides life for another?

“That’s the euphoria,” said Keith, now a successful 43-year-old Las Vegas businessman.

It lasts for about 10 days, Keith said. Then the medication wears off and, even though you are feeling physically better than you have in years — you can feel your fingers and toes again because at long last, blood and oxygen are flowing to them — the emotional high you’ve been on tapers off.

“You’re chemically altered, and it does these things to you,” Keith said.

That’s why he wanted to know if I had Gondo’s e-mail address. When those things happen to Gondo, Keith wanted him to know he was there for him.

But if he chooses not to respond, Keith will understand that, too, he says — totally understand.

Until about a year ago, Keith had kept his transplant a secret to all but a few within his inner circle — his children, his former coaches and teammates, and administrators such as Brad Rothermel, the former UNLV athletic director, who jumped through hoops for him, obtained the waivers and signed them in triplicate so Keith could resume his soccer career.

“We all have problems,” he said, and you can certainly understand that. Although heart transplants are now considered fairly routine, it has been just 41 years since Dr. Christian Barnard performed the first one. The procedure is still a bit more complicated than having a boil lanced or a mole removed.

For Keith, it wasn’t so much the physical problems — he’s had his share, but considers them minor — that proved to be a burden. It was the emotional stress. He had been a national soccer star in his native Canada and was constantly besieged by journalists and others. They meant well, he said, but the attention was suffocating.

“They were literally camped out on my doorstep,” he said.

He felt his life was being defined by his medical condition, that he was almost becoming a caricature of himself. That’s why he left his home in Victoria, B.C., and moved to Las Vegas 20 years ago. With the exception of his brother Adam, who also starred on the soccer pitch for the Rebels, and those mentioned earlier, nobody knew him. Well, you knew him, but you didn’t know.

I told him that until that story last year, I didn’t know him as a heart transplant recipient. I knew him only as a soccer player, from having to type his name so often in the sports briefs.

“Beautiful,” he said. “That’s progress right there.”

Keith said he’s not the ideal post-transplant patient. He doesn’t go for checkups at the prescribed intervals, doesn’t take all the medication. He refuses to play by somebody else’s rules.

“I don’t buy into all of their protocol,” he said of the medical experts and insurance companies.

He doesn’t suggest Gondo ignore the protocol. Unless that’s what he decides is best for him.

The two differ in one regard. Gondo wants to have a relationship with the loved ones of his donor. Keith chose not to.

His heart came from a 17-year-old soccer star in Wales, the homeland of Keith’s father. Talk about a perfect match. It’s not that he was being cold or unfeeling or wasn’t appreciative — maybe he was just different then. The 20-plus years that have passed have given him perspective. He was trying to explain it to me the best he could, and I was trying to understand it the best I could.

Maybe it’s like postpartum depression, or something like that, I thought. So I asked.

Keith said he didn’t know about postpartum depression — how could he?

But he does know what it’s like to live with somebody else’s heart beating in his chest.

Soon, Glen Gondrezick will know what it’s like to live with a transplanted heart, this wonderful gift of life — a second life. In the meantime, if he’s curious about what lies ahead, Simon Keith will gladly share his experiences.

That’s progress, too.

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