‘Life is a fight’ for Newman’s Gant
Golfer fighting to get back on course following heart transplant
It was not too long ago that Jeremy Gant thought he was in the best shape of his life.
At least, it looked that way.
Gant, a golfer from Newman, believed he was a healthy, 19-year-old young man. Not only active on the golf course, Gant was also an avid weightlifter, and was named Teen Body Builder of the Week by Bodybuilding.com in the summer leading up to what was supposed to be his sophomore year of college.
“He could have done modeling for weight machines,” Newman head golf coach Kent Notestine said. “He was absolutely ripped. You couldn’t find a healthier-looking kid.”
But, sometimes, looks are deceiving. Gant kept suffering from shortness of breath in the weeks before school started last year. He had been diagnosed with asthma years earlier, but this was different. Something was just not right.
“I was into weight lifting and in amazing shape, so I couldn’t understand it,” Gant said. “When I got to school last year, I was moving my things onto the second floor where I was going to live … I was completely covered in sweat and short of breath. I knew there was something wrong. Then, my heart started doing funny things and I could feel it when I was sleeping at night.”
Gant consulted with his mother, and they scheduled an appointment with a local doctor near his hometown of Chanute, Kan. He wore a 24-hour heart monitor, and was diagnosed with tachycardia or a rapid heartbeat. A chest x-ray showed his heart was enlarged. He was referred to a heart specialist in Wichita near Newman’s campus.
The next appointment was scheduled for Aug. 31, also his father Cecil’s birthday. Gant’s parents made the two-hour drive to Wichita to go with Jeremy to the appointment with the plan of a birthday celebration to follow.
“I figured they would just give me some medicine or something and I would be OK,” Gant said. “I was ready to get back to golf practice. They did an echocardiogram [sonogram of the heart] and then they came to the waiting room to tell me I needed to be admitted into the hospital immediately.”
Gant was admitted to the Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita after being told he had a valve problem, and would need to have valve replacement surgery in the next couple days. But first, there more tests.
The next day, the doctor’s news was even more shocking.
“The doctor came in and said I would need a heart transplant in order to live – my heart was functioning at 10 percent,” Gant said.
What had been believed to be a battle with asthma all these years was actually Gant’s heart valves leaking blood into his lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Over time, the condition enlarged Gant’s heart.
“They said I may not have been born with it, but it may have developed over time,” Gant said. “If I would have caught it earlier, I might not have had to have a heart transplant, but I didn’t know until I started having heart palpitations and getting short of breath. I had never had an echocardiogram done previously. When I was 12 years old, I had a stress test and I passed it with flying colors.”
Gant was life-flighted to Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City to start the process of getting a new heart. There were many more tests as doctors tried to determine if Gant was a candidate for a transplant.
“Once I got on the list, I stayed in the hospital for a week or two after the Labor Day weekend waiting for a heart,” Gant said. “I was a 1-B, which has the second-highest priority on the list. But no one called, so I was shipped back home.”
While waiting for a new heart wasn’t tough enough, Gant’s PIC line – a long-term intravenous line – would get infected, sending him back and forth to Kansas City to resolve the issue.
Finally, almost six weeks after Gant learned the severity of his condition, the call came. It was a Sunday night, and he got a call from an unknown number. Saint Luke’s was on the phone telling him to come to Kansas City for his new heart.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Gant said. “It just came when I least expected it. I was lying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep.”
Gant and his parents packed their things, and headed two hours north to Kansas City, burning up the phone lines all the way, spreading the news.
On Oct. 11, Gant got his second chance at life and underwent transplant surgery to receive his new heart.
“It was crazy because I saw the guy carrying the cooler with my new heart in it,” Gant said. “It was wild.”
Heart Fore Jeremy
During those nerve-wracking six weeks, and since the life-saving surgery, Gant received a tremendous amount of support from his local community, as well as the golfing world.
The town of Chanute, with a population of about 9,500, came together in support of Gant, praying he would get a heart, and raising funds through events such as golf tournaments to help with the incredible medical costs. There were paper hearts posted in store windows and words of encouragement on business marquees. From the hospital, Gant was able to interact with people at some of the fundraisers through Skype and was thrilled with all the support.
It was not long before the golf community found out about Gant’s situation. Professional golfer Tom Watson – a winner of eight major championships – lives outside of Kansas City, and was one of the first to visit Gant in the hospital after hearing about Gant through a local newspaper writer.
“Before the transplant, Tom Watson just came strolling in the room,” Gant said. “I was pretty shocked.”
Gant’s parents reached out to Erik Compton, a professional golfer on the Nationwide Tour who has undergone two heart transplants in his life. Compton, who won the Mexico Open in June to earn a spot on the PGA Tour next year, immediately called Gant to share his experience and advice. Compton had his first transplant in 1992 at 12 years old, and his second in 2008.
“Erik has helped me tremendously and we stay in touch so if I ever need anything he is there,” said Gant. “We are going to play in the near future and show the world that miracles do exist.”
Two weeks after Gant’s transplant, Oklahoma State’s Mike McGraw heard the story, and the head coach of the powerhouse Cowboys reached out to the young man who attended his golf camp about six years earlier. The two have been texting and talking on the phone ever since, and McGraw has extended several invitations for Gant to play golf in Stillwater with current players like 2010 U.S. Amateur Champion Peter Uihlein and former OSU player and PGA golfer Rickie Fowler.
Gant’s round of golf with Uihlein last December was his first since the surgery. McGraw also had Gant work his golf camp for nine days in June, where he shared the story of his heart transplant with the campers. In July, McGraw played in the Jeremy Gant Heart Foundation Golf Tournament that not only helps with Gant’s medical bills, but for others going through similar situations.
“I think it is really good for my guys that are basically his age and very, very healthy for them to understand they cannot take good health for granted,” McGraw said. “You can’t assume it is always going to be there. Jeremy has come face-to-face with death, and has won that battle. He’s a good inspiration for our guys and for me.”
Of course, Newman’s players and Coach Notestine have been with Gant every step of the way. The team was playing in a regional preview about 120 miles away on the day of the transplant, and on the way back to Wichita the next day, they stopped in Kansas City to wave and smile to a groggy Gant behind the glass wall of his room.
“He knew he was missed and we couldn’t wait to get him back amongst his band of brothers,” Notestine said.
The Long Road Back
Following surgery last October, Gant lost 40 pounds during his week’s hospital stay. He was in tons of pain from the surgeon cracking his chest open, and sore from the tubes sticking out of him. But little by little, Gant is recovering. He takes about 25 pills a day, which he hopes will be cut to about 15 after he reaches the year anniversary of the surgery next month. He will be on several of the pills for the rest of his life as they tell his body not to reject his heart.
Gant was not able to do any lifting at all for three months, but gradually started working out again. On the golf course, Gant started chipping and putting, working his way up to half-swings and now full swings.
“I’m starting to notice a difference now,” Gant said. “The doctors said the first year will be really rough, and it has been – not only physically, but mentally. The doctors recommend seeing a psychologist, because a lot goes through your mind. Now, I’m finally starting to feel good. I’ve been working out, and I’m starting to run and not be out of breath. I’ve never been able to feel that before.”
Notestine, who was once the Chanute club pro and has known Gant since he was four years old, is amazed at the progress.
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“You wouldn’t believe it [if you met him today],” Notestine said. “You would think, what a healthy young man. He’s getting stronger all the time. For such an unfortunate situation, it could not have worked out any better.”
But while Gant hopes there will be continued improvement, he knows staying health will be a lifelong battle.
“People think I’m back to normal, but there are a lot of things that I have to watch out for,” Gant said. “I don’t have an immune system because of the rejection medicine. I have to be really clean and cautious. I have to make sure I wear sun screen because some of the medicine makes you really vulnerable for skin cancer. There are a lot of thoughts that go on in your head that only people that have had a transplant can understand. It’s definitely been a fight.”
Gant made bracelets with message that is dear to him -- “Win the Fight.” He shares them with his supporters, thanking them for their prayers.
“Life is a fight,” Gant said. “I've learned that you can either give up or you can win.”
Gant certainly has no intention of giving up. On Sept. 12, he played in his first collegiate golf tournament in a year-and-a-half, participating in the Wichita State Invitational. He used a push cart in the event, but was able to walk 36 holes the first day – something he had never been able to do.
“I wanted to compete and do well, but it was more of seeing if I could make it 36 holes,” Gant said. “I just wanted to get through the whole process and start getting back into things. I’m still thinking about a heart transplant, and I need to be worrying about playing golf and not all that. It was a pretty big step, but I made it 36 holes with flying colors. Next time, I’ll be more focused on the golf aspect.”
“I think it has made him stronger even though there are some physical limitations, but I don’t know how much that will inhibit him because he is working out very hard and is determined to play and for his team play well this year,” McGraw said.