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Vicki Gardner in her living room surrounded by paintings. A search is underway to find her replacement as the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce’s executive director.

After nearly 17 years, Vicki Gardner stepped down from her position as executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce a month earlier than expected.

Due to doctor’s orders, Gardner retired in July, a month shy of her scheduled retirement of Aug. 26 — a date that is significant as being one of her happiest and saddest days, she said.

In 2002, that was Gardner’s first day as the chamber’s executive director. Thirteen years later on that same day, she was seriously injured in a shooting just outside her office at Bridgewater Plaza that killed WDBJ-TV (Channel 7) journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

Gardner originally had planned to serve as executive director for 20 years, but complications from the shooting forced her to leave early. The pain in her back, she said, had gotten to a point where it was difficult for her to work more than a few hours at a time.

A bullet hit her spine and ricocheted through her body, Gardner said. Doctors removed a kidney and parts of her intestines and colon, and she has lived with back pain ever since.

Gardner admitted that she almost didn’t make it through the surgery following the shooting. For a time, doctors were unable to find the source of some of her internal bleeding.

“From the time of that shooting, my entire life was changed,” she said.

Earlier this year, Gardner had surgery to fuse several damaged vertebrae in her lower back. The vertebrae were screwed into place using a bone from her hip.

However, a recent doctor’s visit showed that some of those screws were starting to come loose, which will require another surgery. “The fixes just weren’t cooperating as well as they had hoped,” Gardner said.

While the surgery hasn’t been scheduled, Gardner said she expects it to be done sometime in September.

Adamant that she is not retiring, Gardner said she will continue to be involved with the chamber, just not at the same level. In recent months she could only move around for a few hours before she had to rest due to significant pain. She said the chamber needs an executive director with enough energy to support the community.

The chamber’s board of directors began searching for a new executive director shortly after Gardner announced she was stepping down. While she has chosen not to be involved in the hiring process, Gardner said she is eager to help support that person. “I will be the greatest cheerleader for whoever steps in,” she said.

Lindsey Coley, chair of the chamber’s board of directors, said interviews are ongoing to find a new executive director. “We are looking for the right person,” she said.

Cheryl Ward is serving as the chamber’s interim executive director until a permanent replacement can be found.

Once a new executive director is hired, Coley said a search will begin for a new event manager to replace Andrea Fansler, who stepped down in June.

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