Playing with heart: Kenneth Horsey’s journey from open-heart surgery to the UK football team

Kenneth Horsey Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

In football, there will be moments when you are faced with a difficult challenge, and the great football players conquer that challenge with no complaints.

That profile is what you get from Kenneth Horsey, a freshman offensive lineman who is in the middle of his redshirt season. In the eyes of his parents, Horsey is someone who hardly complains and always gets his work done without much thought.

That’s how Kenneth’s parents knew something was wrong when he was complaining about side pain during the family’s Easter meal.

“You just had that feeling like ‘Okay, this is not right,’” said Shari Horsey, Kenneth’s mother.

When Kenneth first started feeling pain in his side, he thought nothing of it. This was not the first time he had gotten a slight stomachache while eating a big meal, and he just thought that’s what he gets for eating fast.

It turns out Kenneth did not have a slight stomachache. Something was blocking his kidney, not allowing it to function properly.

The pain never went away; instead, it only got worse, and that’s when they knew this was more than just a simple stomach ache.

Shari ended up calling 911, and an ambulance took him to the hospital for tests. That’s when doctors discovered something was blocking the blood flow to Kenneth’s kidneys.

“They did a body scan and they realized that there was something growing on my heart valve,” Kenneth said. “What they predicted was that a piece of it broke and traveled down to my kidney, so it was blocking kidneys functions.”

When doctors discovered the growth on Kenneth’s heart valve, one of the first things they wanted to find out was what the growth was, and whether it was infectious or not.

Kenneth spent a lot of time with the infectious disease department, but all the tests he took came back negative. Kenneth and his family met with multiple cardiologists, doctors and surgeons to try and figure out what the growth was, but no one had any answers.

No one in the Horsey family has a history of medical problems relating to Kenneth’s issue, which made Kenneth’s condition even more confusing.

If the growth was not causing any immediate issues, then getting it removed was not necessary. However, fear of another health issue arising because of the mysteriousness of the growth led the Horsey family to decide to get the growth removed via open-heart surgery.

“The fear was that if we do not act, it’s something that may occur again in a short period of time,” said Ken Horsey, Kenneth’s father..

Kenneth had open-heart surgery on April 6, five days after the Easter Sunday meal. The growth was successfully removed and Kenneth suffered no permanent damage to his kidneys.

What followed for Kenneth was a lengthy recovery process that featured a balance of highs and lows.

The lows began right after the procedure when Kenneth was forced to miss the final two months of his senior year of high school while recovering from the procedure. While away from school, Kenneth missed out on his senior prom and his final track season, meaning he could not accomplish his goal of winning the shot put at the state championships.

“My teachers mailed me my work, so I finished my work that way,” Kenneth said.

Exercise-wise, Kenneth was very restricted on what he could do. At first, he was limited to four 10-minute walks a day, which Kenneth described as difficult. He also had to do exercises with a breathing machine to keep his lungs expanding.

As for weight lifting, Kenneth was not allowed to lift anything heavier than five pounds for the first four weeks following the surgery.

“As parents, we talked him, so to speak, off the ledge, like ‘Well, you could’ve broken your leg and been out in a cast for three months,’” Shari Horsey said. “I think it’s a big difference between open heart surgery and breaking a leg, I realize that, but you never know what can happen, anything can happen but the bottom line is you have to give it time to heal.”

The more time that passed, the easier the exercises got for Kenneth. He was able to keep increasing the intensity and lift up to 25 pounds by the time he got to Kentucky in early June. The athletic training staff had him on the treadmill and elliptical, and to keep his upper body strength, Kenneth could do a med ball circuit.

Kenneth was happy to be progressing the way that he was in his workouts, but something was still missing. Even with all the progress he had made, Kenneth was still unable to do the workouts with the rest of the team. Kenneth did his personalized workouts while the rest of the team went through regular activities for the first month Kenneth was on campus.

All that changed on July 2, when Kenneth was fully cleared to do workouts with his team with no restrictions. It was the first time Kenneth had the opportunity to work out with teammates since before his open-heart surgery.

One workout Kenneth remembers doing with the team was hill repeats, where he would do one-off and one-on until the team completed 10 total repeats. He was obviously tired, since he was a month behind the rest of his teammates, but the experience of working with his teammates made the workout enjoyable.

“Going through these workouts and stuff just really brings the team closer together,” Kenneth said. “I was able to get closer with them because when you go through stuff like that, you got to lean on your brothers sometimes, so it was definitely good to be able to build that bond with them.”

The athletic training staff at Kentucky has received a lot of the credit for getting Kenneth back to full strength. They had to take in a young man who was two months removed from open-heart surgery, something the staff had little experience in.

When Ken and Shari moved Kenneth into his dorm in June, they met with the medical staff and athletic trainers so they could get to know the people who would be taking care of their son for the next five years.

Dropping off a child at college is an emotional moment for parents, and the fact that their child had open-heart surgery two months prior would make that moment more emotional or stressful, many would think. However, the Horseys were comfortable leaving Kenneth behind in Lexington because of the great meetings they had with the staff.

“I feel good about him being there, and then speaking with the medical staff and the director, I think that they got his best interests in heart,” Shari said.

Kenneth continued to improve his fitness while being monitored by the athletic training staff all through the summer, and by the time fall camp rolled around, Kenneth was still working out at full strength, no restrictions. Kenneth got through all of training camp with no setbacks, and continues to practice with the team.

Even though he is redshirting this season, Kenneth’s parents came back to Lexington during the weekend of Kentucky’s season-opening game against Central Michigan to see their son in a Kentucky jersey and get a taste of southern hospitality.

“We made a whole bunch of friends already, and it’s only been like the one actual visit for the game,” Ken said.

Kenneth and his parents hardly talk about his medical experience now that he’s back to 100 percent. Kenneth has to visit the doctor and get an EKG done every six months for the next couple of years, but besides that he’s living life as a normal college athlete.

To this day, doctors and Kenneth’s parents don’t know what the growth was on Kenneth’s heart valve that caused the issue. Shari said she wishes she knew what it was so they can try to prevent it from coming back, but there’s no way of knowing since the growth still is a mystery.

“He’ll let us know if there’s something that pains him or something of that nature, but we got to kind of put it in the past and move on,” Shari said.

As Kenneth continues to practice with no setbacks, he can’t help but think about what life was for him six months ago, as he struggled to breathe while hanging over a walker going for one of his daily 10 minute walks.

With Kenneth doing heavier workouts now, he enjoys them a little more because of the experience he went through.

“As I was walking, I was just sitting there and I was thinking back and I was just thinking about how good God is and I told myself no matter how hard the workout was, no matter what they’re making you do, I’m always going to be appreciative and I’m always going to give God the glory for what he brought me through because you never know when your time is up,” Kenneth said.

The experience continues to impact him and will be with him for the rest of his life, but for the immediate future, he is ready to help the surging Wildcats.

“I’m ready to put it behind me, I’m 100 percent and I’m ready to get out there and help get some wins for UK,” Kenneth said.