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RON KANTOWSKI :

For Gondo, no place like home

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Steve Marcus

Radio analyst and former UNLV basketball star Glen Gondrezick relaxes at home in October while recovering from heart transplant surgery.

Gondo back home

UNLV basketball hall-of-famer and broadcast analyst Glen Gondrezick poses with his dog Gabby, a miniature Doberman Pinscher, at his home Monday Oct. 20, 2008. Gondrezick is recovering after his heart transplant operation on Sept. 20. Launch slideshow »

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  • Glen Gondrezick talks about how much prayers meant to him. (Oct. 2008)

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  • Gondrezick talks about what he's looking forward to. (Oct. 2008)

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  • Gondrezick talks about reaching out his donor's family. (Oct. 2008)

When I knocked on Glen Gondrezick’s door Saturday night, it had a giant Happy Halloween banner covering it.

When he answered it, he was wearing a red T-shirt that said “LEAGUE OFFICIAL” on the front, and black workout pants.

Whew!

There’s an unexplained phenomenon in which some heart transplant patients — of which, as of Sept. 20, the UNLV basketball Hall-of-Famer and longtime broadcast analyst is one — inherit characteristics of their donor. It’s called “cellular memory.” Doctors, of course, are skeptical, but many patients swear it’s true.

Simon Keith, the former UNLV soccer star who received a transplanted heart in 1986, says he has been a different person ever since. In June, 63-year-old William Sheridan, who couldn’t draw a stick figure before his operation, began to paint beautiful landscapes. Turns out his donor was a former Wall Street stockbroker who used to receive art supplies as Christmas presents.

Gondo said doctors told him they knew of one heart transplant recipient who became a cross-dresser.

If the truth be known, I would have watched Game 6 of the American League Championship Series with Gondo if he had been wearing one of Kirstie Alley’s old pantsuits. But I’m happy to report that if he’s changing personalities, it isn’t readily apparent.

As for the giant Halloween banner on the door, Gondo, the big lug, said he’s always been a Halloween kind of guy. He said he actually put up the decorations before he left for the UCLA Medical Center in the wee hours of Sept. 20. By that afternoon, the new heart was beating inside his chest like Ringo Starr’s drum kit.

When he returned home late Thursday afternoon, it appeared Hurricane Ike had crashed through the patio door and left through the garage. His place was a mess, and there was an uneaten Pop-Tart in the toaster oven.

Neighbor kids playing an early Trick-or-Treat prank? Uh-uh. Seems Gondo’s 12-year-old son, Travis, isn’t as meticulous about keeping a clean house as his old man.

As soon as he saw the mess and that Pop-Tart, a thought raced from Gondo’s new heart to his old mind.

Man, he thought, it sure is good to be home.

Exactly four weeks to the day since he received a second gift of life, Gondo was sitting in his living room, watching Josh Beckett mow down the Tampa Bay Rays. That’s amazing. Not that Beckett, who had been struggling during the postseason, was suddenly throwing strikes, but that Gondo was sitting there, watching him do it (at least after TBS solved its technical difficulties) in the comfort of his own living room.

Dr. Christiaan Barnard would have been amazed. He’s the guy from South Africa who performed the first heart transplant in 1967. The patient lived for 18 days.

Think about it. Four weeks and three days ago, which was the last time we spoke before the transplant he didn’t know he was getting, Gondo sounded like a goner. He said he even started wearing a nice T-shirt and shorts to bed at night, because he didn’t want the paramedics to find him ... well, dressed like a bum when it finally happened. There is always hope, but at some point hope yields to reality, and the reality was that Gondo wasn’t going to survive very much longer without a new heart.

He used to joke about a 12-pack of Bud Light (he’s a Coors man) he kept in the garage refrigerator for the times I’d drop by. He said he would leave the garage door open, just in case, and that I should tell the authorities that 12-pack was mine when they began sorting out his personal belongings.

Three days before UCLA called him in the middle of the night, he said if I was going to drink that beer, I should probably come over. This time, he wasn’t joking.

Four weeks. Twenty-eight days. Other than John McCain blowing a lead, I can’t think of a more dramatic turnaround in that frame of time than the one I was witnessing sitting to the right of me in the big easy chair.

All I wanted to talk about was his transplant, and I did manage to talk him into showing me his scar. It looks like a little “T” and it’s only about 6 inches long, which also seems amazing. All he wanted to talk about was sports.

Well, that’s not entirely true. After Jason Varitek hit his home run and Travis called for a ride home, he said he wanted to show me what was in the box in the other living room chair. It was a hand-stitched quilt with sports symbols and religious verses. It had arrived in the intensive care unit at UCLA about the same time he did.

It was from Corky and Bobbie Poole. Corky had been a student manager for UNLV’s first basketball team, in 1958. Fourteen years ago, according to the note that came with the quilt, he received a liver transplant, his second gift of life.

In a way, Gondo might have hoped his heart donor had been a poet laureate. At least that way maybe he could come up with the proper words to thank all of those who have been there for him throughout his ordeal, which actually began nine years ago, when he was diagnosed with heart disease. It was almost as if all of those prayers and well wishes and checks with signatures on them and $20 bills that people have sent to chip away at his mountain of medical bills were tucked inside with the batting.

“I’m thinking about having it framed,” Gondo said.

What was left unsaid is home is where that quilt is. Home is where loved ones await, where friends can sit on the sofa and drink a beer and watch a ballgame. Home is where a little dog named Gabby barks and barks and barks, so happy to see her daddy. Home is even a mess in the living room and an uneaten Pop-Tart in the toaster oven.

Home, Glen Gondrezick now knows more than ever, is where the heart is.

Read Ron Kantowski’s blog, “Now and Then.”

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  1. Welcome home Gondo, and wishing you a successful recovery. Get well soon.

  2. Hope recovery is going well.