Transplant recipients remember Intermountain surgeon who died in ski crash

Feb 5, 2022, 5:35 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 3:55 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Transplant recipients and donors are mourning the death of an Intermountain Healthcare surgeon who died in a ski crash this week.

They’re sharing how Dr. Andrew Gagnon impacted their lives, and remembering him on social media.

Gagnon passed away Thursday after falling from a cliff while skiing at Solitude.

Utah surgeon killed after 100-foot fall while skiing at Solitude

While the news is hitting his medical colleagues hard, it’s also leaving a huge hole in the Utah transplant community.

Jeff Willis is one of those people who knows Gagnon as the person who saved his life.

“Man, it’s hard. I can’t process it,” Willis told KSL TV Saturday.

He was in denial and disbelief after hearing the news of Gagnon’s death Friday evening.

When he first found out, Willis was left trying to understand how the person responsible for giving him his life back had died.

“I drove to the Intermountain campus, Building 5, and I just sat in the parking lot, trying to process everything,” Willis said. “I was just in a state of shock.”

Just two years ago, Willis, a type 1 diabetic at the time, was in end stage renal failure. He was on dialysis through a port in his neck, and his body was shutting down. He needed a kidney and pancreas transplant to keep living.

“They had said that if they hadn’t done that, he would have been dead within a couple of weeks,” recalled Kristina Keene, Jeff’s significant other. “So, he was really at the end of the rope.”

In November 2019, Jeff recounted how he got a 2:30 a.m. phone call that Intermountain Medical Center found a donor match and he needed to come in right away. At the time, Willis could hardly walk, and said he staggered to his car and drove to the hospital.

That’s when he first met Dr. Andrew Gagnon.

“I saw Dr. Gagnon and he introduced himself. And for a lot of people who know, he’s got this signature smile. It’s just, it’s so warming,” Willis shared.

Willis said he thanked the team before they put him to sleep for the surgery.

Keene anxiously waited outside the operating room for the four or five hours it took to operate.

Once finished, she described how Gagnon came out looking exhausted, but relieved and happy. She broke down crying and gave Gagnon a hug, sobbing in his arms.

“That kindness and comfort that I got from him was overwhelming,” Keene said. “I honestly don’t know that I would have handled that night as well as I did without him.”

Willis left the hospital two weeks later, with both a new kidney and pancreas — and without type 1 diabetes.

He got the chance a couple months later to thank Gagnon at an event to celebrate Willis as the Intermountain Healthcare Transplant Program’s 3,000th kidney transplant patient.

A picture shows him shaking Gagnon’s hand, with both men all smiles.

Transplant recipient Jeff Willis shakes Dr. Andrew Gagnon’s hand at an Intermountain Healthcare Transplant Program event celebrating Willis as their 3,000th kidney transplant patient. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

“I don’t know how to repay you. I have to make every day count,” Willis remembered saying to Dr. Gagnon. “And for him, it was just like, ‘You’re alive. That’s my repayment is you’re alive.’ And [he was] just such a good human being in general.”

That was the last time they saw each other, but he’s thought about Gagnon and the entire Intermountain Healthcare Transplant Program team every day since.

Willis’ story is just one of hundreds about Dr. Andrew Gagnon and what he’s done to give patients another chance at life.

“Dr. Gagnon gave me a second birthday. And it was like as if life didn’t begin for me until after pretty much 40 years old,” Willis said.

He’s thinking of Gagnon, especially now, knowing more than anyone how precious life really is.

He said his heart goes out to Gagnon’s family and Intermountain Healthcare team.

“From here out, I’m going to do my best, as much as I can,” Willis said. “Because being alive, it’s a privilege.”

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Transplant recipients remember Intermountain surgeon who died in ski crash