By Dee Russell
Christopher “Bek” Gardner was always a caretaker. It started at a young age when he took on the role of “man of the house,” vigilantly watching over his little sister and mother until she remarried when he was 16. He later joined the fire department as an emergency medical technician and became a paramedic right away.
“Bek hated dropping patients off at the hospital and not knowing what happened to them,” said Carlie Watt, Gardner’s sister. “He wanted to follow through with their treatment, so he went back to school online and was in the process of becoming a nurse.”
Gardner, 43, worked in the emergency room of a local hospital, where he picked up extra shifts whenever he could. Outside of work, Watt said he spent most of his extra time visiting their grandmother, who was in an assisted living facility.
“Bek was known for his bedside manner and could calm the most irate patient down,” Watt said.
“He also had a very steady mind and hand, and even had a reputation for always being able to place an IV successfully. It was ridiculous.”
Gardner was driving home after covering a co-worker’s shift Oct. 22, 2017, when he rear-ended a semitrailer on Interstate 295. He was transported to UF Health Jacksonville with a severe head injury.
“I got a call at 9 that night saying it was very serious and I needed to be there,” Watt said. “I was still on my way to Jacksonville from Atlanta when a doctor called asking if I was going to sign a do-notresuscitate order. That’s when I knew it was bad.”
Twenty-four hours after the accident, Watt was ready to sign the DNR, when her aunt asked her if Bek was an organ donor. He was, and Watt immediately called a nurse, making it her mission to ensure his organs would be donated. She even remembered a conversation Bek had with her 15-year-old daughter a year earlier about why he became an organ donor.
“He explained to my daughter that there are thousands of people, many on their deathbeds, who wait by their phones for the call,” Watt said. “He told her with your organs, you can help them live a life they never thought they could.”
Gardner was able to donate his heart, lungs, liver and both of his kidneys, saving five lives. He also donated both of his corneas. He was one of 14 patients who became organ donors at UF Health Jacksonville last year. Each donor was celebrated during the Tree of Life Ceremony on April 24 in the LRC Auditorium.
“There are more than 114,000 patients on the national transplant waiting list, including more than 5,400 listed at transplant centers in Florida,” said Kathleen Giery, the director of donor program development for LifeQuest Organ Recovery Services. “For each of them, a lifesaving organ transplant is their only hope.” Every day, an estimated 22 people die in the United States waiting for an organ transplant.
LifeQuest is the federally designated organ procurement organization that serves a 36-county region in North Florida.
“As the region’s only Level I adult and pediatric trauma center, the staff and trauma surgeons work hard each day to improve the lives of injured patients,” said Brian Yorkgitis, D.O., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville’s department of surgery
and a UF Health trauma surgeon. “Sometimes, the patient’s injuries are so severe, we can’t restore their health,’’ he said. “It is a difficult time for the patient’s loved ones when the loss is so great. In that loss, hope can come through the gift of life — organ donation.
It is powerful to witness a grieving loved one achieve so much peace when they know their family or friend lives on after giving the gift of life.”
Last year, UF Health Jacksonville’s 14 organ donors provided 46 organs to patients in need.
“The heart Bek used to love me with gets to love others,” Watt said. “His lungs are now breathing new life into someone else. Losing Bek was one of the hardest things I had to go through, but allowing him to help others — even after he died — was the easiest.”