When Tim Conners collected his wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 2012 at the age of 18, he was blind from childhood leukemia that had spread to his optic nerve and craving inspiration to transcend his disability. A football player and wrestler who’d never been an outdoorsman, he asked to meet Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on seven continents.
Tim’s wish came true. He had 2½ terrifying but transformative days of outdoor adventures in Colorado with Erik, who lost his sight to a degenerative eye disorder at 13.
Now Tim is training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the 19,000-foot peak in Tanzania in May, shortly after he graduates from Ithaca College. He’s already climbed four peaks in Colorado, including the 14,000-foot, snow- and loose-rock-covered Mount Sherman last summer. He’s trekked and rafted in the Grand Canyon.
“In a lot of ways, losing my sight gave me my vision,” says Tim.
Tim’s journey began on April 3, 2010, when he was diagnosed at Upstate Galisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, New York, near his home, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common pediatric cancer, with an overall 90 percent cure rate. Tim had T-cell ALL, a very aggressive subset that requires an intense chemotherapy regimen to achieve such a high cure rate.
The intensive chemotherapy pushed Tim’s leukemia into remission, but the disease was back three months later, at which time doctors discovered cancer in Tim’s eyes. Surgery failed to save his sight.
Next came a hematopoietic stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, in September 2010. His brother’s healthy stem cells were infused into his bloodstream, engrafted in his bone marrow and took over space once occupied by cancer cells.
Stem cell transplant is a curative but toxic therapy that carries risks of graft-versus-host disease, infection, rejection and organ dysfunction. These complications are associated with a 5-15 percent mortality risk. Because his cancer had relapsed, Tim needed additional radiation and chemotherapy prior to the normal intensive pre-treatment required to make room for donor cells, which increased his risk of complications. He developed life-threatening heart and kidney failure and fluid overload in his lungs.
Pediatric specialists from Boston Children’s Hospital — intensivists in the intensive care unit, a nephrologist for his kidneys and cardiologist for his heart — worked with Tim’s transplant team to save him.
“Honestly, a miracle happened,” says Tim. “Thanks to my stubbornness, great doctors and a mother who checked everything, I was able to rebound.”
“Tim was a very challenging patient who had an atypical relapse of his very aggressive type of leukemia,” says Dr. Esther Obeng. “But he’s a fighter and was able to recover.”