Heart transplant gives Atlantan a second chance for life and love

William Sanders and Bernice Ward Sanders in their Atlanta home. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

William Sanders and Bernice Ward Sanders in their Atlanta home. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Atlantan Will Sanders grabbed a second chance at life and love and isn’t letting go.

The 68-year-old retired criminal investigator was near death this time last year with a heart that doctors could not mend.

Dr. Mahmoud Abdou, an assistant professor of medicine and a cardiologist with Emory’s Advanced Heart Failure and Transplantation team, hadn’t minced words. Despite being in relatively good health, Sander’s heart wasn’t keeping up with the rhythm of life.

His heart function had dropped to less than 20% in a year and was getting worse and worse. Interventions, including medicine, an implantable defibrillator, and a pacemaker, hadn’t worked. Two options remained: a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD), a surgically implanted pump used for patients with end-stage heart failure, or a transplant.

Sanders said he had largely been in denial until he couldn’t walk to his mailbox or the three or four steps into his den.

“I never saw this coming,” he said. “But when it came, I asked God for another chance, and He gave it to me.”

On Good Friday of 2023, Sanders received his new heart and a chance to write a new chapter in a storied life that included running with a notorious Philadelphia street gang in his early years and retiring at 65 after 28 years with the Fulton County State Court Solicitor’s Office, the last four as chief investigator.

William "Will" Sanders received a new heart at Emory University Hospital last year. He's still recovering but doing well, his new wife and doctors say. Courtesy of William Sanders and Bernice Ward Sanders

Credit: Photo is courtesy of Bernice and William Sanders

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Credit: Photo is courtesy of Bernice and William Sanders

Abdou said Sanders was a “remarkable” patient, working in the hospital to be as fit as he could be for whatever awaited him and encouraging other cardiac patients to do the same.

“He had his eye set on the prize, which is: I’m going to get my heart and get out of here and live my life,” Abdou said. “It’s that type of attitude that pushes folks to success.”

The experience also opened Sanders’ eyes.

He said being so sick and facing possible death helped him realize “who your true friends are and who really has your back when you’re down.”

His sister Vera Gainey popped in from Philadelphia to check on him and stayed more than four months. He dubbed her and three longtime female friends/former co-workers as his “four angels.” They – along with all of his six children – were there for the highs and lows. They even took turns staying overnight with him at the hospital.

One of those angels was Bernice Ward, 67, a longtime real estate agent, security company manager, and friend of 30 years. The two tried dating several years ago but decided against it.

“I was scared about making a commitment. I thought I was going to mess it up,” said Sanders, who was divorced and planned never to marry again.

Ward, who also was divorced, said she’d come to peace with it. She stated she knew she loved him but accepted that they might just be close friends for life.

Sanders said God had his own ideas.

“He told me I needed to be complete,” he said. “He told me Bernice was the one that I needed.”

He said he reflected on the love, care, and devotion she’d shown him through his heart problems and concluded: I gotta marry this woman.

“Sometimes, I don’t think I deserve her,” he said tearfully.

By midsummer, Sanders was ready to adjust to his new normal and get back to doing things himself. His sister was planning to head back to Philadelphia. Sanders decided he’d give her a surprise birthday party before she left, inviting 60 people she’d met during her extended stay.

One more surprise was waiting.

In front of the crowd at the birthday party, Sanders knelt and proposed to Ward.

“Everybody just fell out,” he said.

He reached out his hand to Ward.

“Help me, I can’t get up,” he recalled, laughing. “It was really beautiful.”

The two married in November.

Today, he’s seeing doctors regularly, has relearned how to walk, and is doing physical therapy. He’s up at 7 a.m. every day, walking about a mile and a half with his dogs – a German shepherd, a Jack Russell terrier and dingo.

The great attitude he had before surgery is intact, Abdou said.

“He told me: ‘You’ve given me a new life, and I’m going to take care of it,” the doctor said. “He’s an amazing guy.”

Sanders still checks in with his fellow cardiac patients at Emory, whom he had cajoled into walking laps with him around the nurse’s station. He asks how they are doing before he gives a pep talk about eating healthy and staying active.

He also has signed up to volunteer to speak to patients in Emory’s cardiac unit who are awaiting or recovering from surgery, as he did.

“I’m a messenger, not a minister,” Sanders said.

Bernice Ward Sanders said the two plan to spend more time with family, including Sanders’ six children, ages 20 to 46. Traveling will be on the couple’s agenda when Sanders is ready. In the meantime, the two enjoy each other’s company and being newlyweds.

Portrait of Bernice & William Sanders in their Atlanta home. William received a heart transplant at age 67, and he decided to marry Bernice, the woman who has been a friend and on-and-off girlfriend. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Credit: Phil Skinner

“All we can do is take one day at a time and be there for each other and keep loving on each other,” Ward Sanders said.

Sanders’ heart transplant not only gave him a second chance at life but also opened the door to a love that had waited in the wings.

“Things change, and they can either blindside or bless us,” Sanders said. “I am blessed. I say: ‘Accept whatever it is, know your new norm, and just be happy. You are a winner.”

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