Bill Conner's mission to raise awareness for organ donation takes him on a heartbreaking and heart-mending trip.
When Abbey Conner decided to register as an organ donor at the age of 16, she never realized that she would get to save the lives of four men aged between 20 and 60, as well as donate her eyes and other tissues. Tragically, however, this would be only a few years later.
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Last winter, Abbey was enjoying a holiday in Mexico with her family when she and her brother, Austin, were found facedown and unconscious in a swimming pool. Although her brother survived, Abbey, then aged 20, sadly died from her injuries. At the same time, the family of Loumonth Jack Jr. was given the news that the 21-year-old, who’d suffered a heart attack, had just 10 days left to live before his heart would give out. Miraculously “with Abbey and the way things went — he’s alive today,” explains her father, Bill Conner.
After suffering such a hard loss, Mr. Conner decided to honor his daughter’s life by raising awareness for organ donation. So on May 22, the day after Austin graduated from college, Conner took to his bicycle saddle and rode a staggering 2,600 miles from his home in Wisconsin to the Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where Abbey’s organs had been recovered. He also informed the Florida donation center who had coordinated the transplants of his plans to spread the word about organ donation. In response, the center sent letters to the recipients of Abbey’s organs to see if they’d be willing to meet her father. Perhaps most movingly, it was Jack who was the first to reply, saying he’d be willing to meet up. The pair arranged a date.
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Conner hopped on his bike — for a shorter trip of just 1,400 miles — to ride to Jack’s home in Baton Rouge, somewhat poignantly on Father’s Day. Conner and Jack met each other with outstretched arms. After a long hug Jack gave Conner a stethoscope for him to hear what had been his daughter’s heart. This very emotional moment for both men gave some comfort to the grieving father: “Knowing he’s alive because of Abbey … it’s her heart having him stand up straight,” Conner shared. “I was happy for him and his family.”
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Before heading off to continue his mission, Jack gave Conner a recording of his heartbeat to accompany him on his journey. The constant reminder of his daughter’s gift has given this dad an added impetus as he pedals. The choice to donate organs is “about helping people live or live better lives,” as Conner reminds us.
There are 117,809 people waiting for organs in the US (remember, you can still save a life by simply donating bone marrow or plasma). And if like Pope Benedict XVI you’d like to be a card carrying organ donor (though his wishes changed after his election as pope, in deference to the demands of the papal funeral rites), you can sign up as an organ donor, tick the “yes” box when you get your driver’s license, or some smart phones have an app with an organ donor option in-built in their software.
You can find more information here about the Catholic Church’s teaching on organ donation.