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3rd heart’s a charm for dying Utah man

9/11, dying patient and snowstorm stood in his way

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Dying of heart disease and waiting for a suitable donor organ, Kenny James Robison had just about given up after three harvested hearts, one after the other, became available within the span of 20 days, then disappeared.

The roadblocks: a historical national disaster, a dying patient in more urgent need and a snowstorm.

Luckily, Robison's third chance ultimately would become his charm.

"I'm just glad we kept on getting opportunities," said Robison's wife, Starr, 24. "We thought just having one donor heart was lucky. I mean, only 50 percent of the people waiting for a heart get one, and then the first time we do it happens on the day of all days. . . . To get another one, then another one, was just amazing."

Three was a number that already had become unluckily familiar for the couple in the past year.

Since birth Robison, now a 24-year-old Murray resident, had suffered effects from congenital heart defects. He'd undergone several surgeries designed to correct them but learned in October 2000 that time was up; his only chance to survive was through a heart transplant.

Shortly after he was put on the national waiting list for a donor, he and his wife learned she was pregnant. And less than a year later, on the fateful day of Sept. 11, one became available — an opportunity that was destined to be lost.

As his wife put it: "On the day of all days . . ."

Sept. 11, 7 a.m.: Robison is told to rush to the hospital because a compatible donor heart would be arriving from Denver. Ninety minutes later, he got called again only to be told the deal was off — all planes across the United States were suddenly grounded due to the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

"They were ready to put it (the heart) in the air at that point, that's what they said," Robison recalled. "I was upset, really upset. But later I realized, maybe that wasn't the heart for me." Turns out the donor, and his 46-year-old heart, likely had a history of cardiovascular disease.

Robison's second chance came Oct. 13, but another patient in a Salt Lake City hospital was in a more dire condition. So after Robison got the initial call and traveled to University Hospital, the other man ended up getting the heart. "I was just like 'Oh, great, that was my only other chance, my only other opportunity.' "

The next day, the third time proved golden, though not initially.

"I got the call, and after they told me they had another heart, I said 'No way.' But they said no, really, this one's for sure, this one is yours." He was actually on the operating room table when what he thought was the worst of the worst news came in. The doctor came in and said: "We have a bit of a problem. The heart's coming from Laramie, Wyo., and they just got hit hard with a snowstorm, and the plane can't take off . . . "

Incredibly disheartened, Robison figured that was the end of his luck. But physicians kept him overnight in hopes the storm would clear, that the heart would arrive in time. There was not much time left: Four hours is the widest window of opportunity a harvested heart has of being transplanted successfully.

And the heart now beating inside Robison's chest made it through that window.

"I'm just glad to be alive," said Robison, the father of 6-month-old Taylor. "Everything happens for a reason as far as I'm concerned. And even after missing out twice, the heart I ended up with is good. I'm glad to have it."

E-MAIL: nwagner@desnews.com