It’s spring, and with the arrival of warmer weather comes more children opting for the outdoors. From hide-and-go-seek to an all-evening pretend game of "In The Army," April sees many children returning to their backyards.
And Connor Quillen is no exception.
The small but feisty 9-year-old couldn’t keep still during a recent interview with a reporter who had more questions than he had patience, especially since the sky was so blue that particular evening in Tattersall, a nice, quiet subdivision on the outskirts of Corbin where Connor lives. When Connor heard the bubbly laughter and excited squeals of his next-door buddies, the temptation was too much for him to resist.
"Got to go!" he exclaimed as he raced for the backdoor. After the door slammed, Connor’s mother, Jodie, rolled her eyes, but there was happiness in her smile. Her boy was up and running, and that was a remarkable improvement from where he was just a few months ago.
"He’s come a long way," Jodie said. "Back in the winter, we just didn’t know."
Connor spent most of the winter making long trips to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where he was often hospitalized. Most of his short life has been a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments, blood work and worry, but after receiving a life-saving liver transplant in late December, Connor’s quality of life is certainly on the rise. There were some setbacks after the surgery, but Connor has just in the last couple of weeks felt a resurge in energy.
"I feel great," he said before heading outside. "I got a new liver, and it made me feel a whole lot better. Want to see?"
In a flash, Connor raised his shirt, exposing a large scar that extended from his chest down to his stomach, where it then scissored from side to side, almost covering the entire spread of his torso.
"That’s where they cut me," he simply said.
And that’s where in December over 50 staples closed the surgical incision that was, in fact, very risky because of Connor’s poor health, but turned out to be the young boy’s new lease on life. He’s proud of those scars. He earned them. Just like the hundreds of tiny, plastic soldier men with which Connor loves to play, it took a soldier’s courage to endure the pain, the weakness, the needles, the tests he’s faced since he was a baby.
"Connor is our gift," Jodie said, before heading to the backdoor to try and coax her son back into the living room to complete the interview. "But what is also a gift is that there are so many out there who are willing to be organ donors. They just don’t have any idea how many miracles that can happen by simply filling out a donor’s card."
Connor used to be one of 98,000 Americans who are in need of organ transplants. Each day, 77 people receive organ transplants that give them a second chance, but, sadly, 17 to 19 others die every day because they did not receive one. With April being National Donate Life Month, the Quillen family is eager to share their son’s story in hopes of inspiring others to become organ donors. They didn’t want the month to slip past without extending their gratitude to their families, physicians and community, and to also make Connor’s story public in an effort to rouse more interest and involvement in organ donation.
Connor’s story has been far-reaching. Since he has family both in the Corbin area and in Harlan County there’s been an extensive spread of "welcome back" banners, balloons and, more important to the family, prayer lists stretching from county to county. Well-wishes have also been extended nationally, with hundreds of people logging on to Connor’s Web site to cheer him on in his recovery. Most recently, a nationally-known and applauded organization known as COTA (Children’s Organ Transplant Association) has become involved to not only help the family with emotional support but to also help with fund-raising events to aid the Quillens in recouping some of the expenses that are often incurred through transplant procedures and recovery.
"Connor’s spirits have remained high throughout this ordeal," said his father, Danny Quillen, a Cumberland resident and Kingdom Come State Park ranger. "He’s always been optimistic and very brave. He was our source of inspiration when we got down."
Danny is hoping that Connor will be able to visit Kingdom Come State Park by the end of summer. Connor hasn’t been able to come to Harlan County and see his Tri-City family since his transplant because of his doctor’s orders for him to stay within a certain proximity of his hospital.
"Connor’s story has pretty much been a success story," Danny said. "We know he’s not entirely out of the woods yet, but things are definitely looking up. His physicians are even encouraged with the progress he’s making."
Even though Connor is still inflicted with the rare disease that caused his liver to fail, (Alagille Syndrome), and he and his family know there continues to be a possibility that other organs could be affected by the disease, they feel as if their child has overcome a major hurtle.
"And the good news is that because someone was willing to be a donor, Connor’s story can continue," Quillen said. "He’s got a lot of living left to do."
In observation of National Donate Life Month, the Quillen family will be sharing Connor’s story in a five-part series that will appear throughout the next several weeks. Within this series, readers will not only learn more about Connor’s plight but will also learn about help that is available for families facing the same crisis.
With increased awareness, organizations like COTA hope that more life-saving transplant surgeries will be on the rise, so that kids like Connor will be able to live longer and healthier.
"Is it all over?" Connor asked, referring to the interview that was interrupting his day of play.
There was a simple smile shared by his mother, his sister, Callie, and the reporter. It appeared as if they all wanted to say, in reference to his life, "Not by a long shot."
Log onto www.COTAfor connorQ.com for more information.