By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL — It didn’t take long for Ronnie Kole to know something serious had happened to his wife, during an otherwise routine dinner at La Provence almost two years.
Gardner Kole was having a wonderful evening as she celebrated the birthday of her daughter on Saturday night, April 3, 2010. Dinner had just finished when Ronnie looked over at her.
“Her head had slumped to the side and her eyes were closed. We immediately knew something serious had happened,” he said.
Gardner’s daughter yelled to see if there was a doctor in the house, which incredibly, there was. Meanwhile, a friend called 911 and within “8 to 9 minutes, the firemen responded with an EMT.”
Ronnie called their personal doctor, and then jumped in the ambulance to ride to the hospital—Gardner remained unconscious, but family members already knew she had suffered a stroke.
“We were all so focused on getting her to the hospital and making sure she was going to be OK,” Ronnie recalls about that emotional night.
Gardner was stabilized and said she doesn’t remember anything that happened that night, nor the next day-and-a-half.
“It was Monday morning when I remember coming back to reality,” Gardner says today, chuckling at herself. “I remember asking the nurse what happened.”
That was the first day of her rehabilitation, which continues today, almost two years later, still leaving her with paralysis on her left side that is “very frustrating,” she said.
But the timing for Gardner’s stroke was coincidentally only a few weeks before the annual Jazz on the Bayou fundraiser was to be held at Ronnie and Gardner’s home. It was to be the 18th annual event, and Ronnie said some of the committee members suggested the event be cancelled out of a show of respect for Gardner.
“We wouldn’t hear of it, and Gardner was insistent the benefit go on,” Ronnie said.
This year Jazz on the Bayou is celebrating 20 years at the same, beautiful home on Bayou Liberty, where Ronnie and Gardner continue to host the annual fundraiser that has donated over $1 million to charity—mainly the Easter Seals and the St. Tammany Association for Retarded Citizens (STARC).
This year’s event is led by Title Sponsor Ochsner Medical Center-North Shore, and Presenting Sponsors Slidell Memorial Hospital and First National Bank of Commerce.
Once again, Gardner will not let her physical challenge slow her down, and quite the contrary, believes that “Jazz” was actually something to help her during the stroke aftermath.
“When they talked about cancelling Jazz the year I had the stroke, I said that we had to continue doing it. Those are such good causes we help, and the people are so wonderful. I told them the stroke wouldn’t stop me from helping,” she said. “For that matter, Jazz probably helped me by giving me something to look forward to, and something to focus on.”
Gardner continues to do much of her same work with all the paperwork, invitations, registrations and more. As always, she will be greeting guests as they arrive, this year on Saturday and Sunday, March 31 and April 1.
As for her stroke, Gardner continues to have rehab and admits it has been a difficult journey since two years ago.
“I started rehab right away, but even two years later, I can’t use my left hand at all, nor raise my arm completely,” she said, still using a wheelchair as well. “The whole thing still seems like a dream and yes, it does get difficult to remain positive at times.
“My greatest sorrow is that I can’t clap when Ronnie performs,” she said. “But I am improving and have been walking with a cane. So I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Jazz on the Bayou for its 20th year promises to be a special time, Ronnie said. The two-day celebration offers many of the finest chefs in the New Orleans area, preparing their best dishes, while a silent and live auction will again offer some incredible items.
Tickets, which are $100 per person, and sponsorships, are still available by contacting Ronnie or Gardner at 504-524-5712 or online at jazzonthebayou.com.