FULTON, NY – The sudden onset of life-threatening cancer didn’t stop him. Losing his sight as a result didn’t stop him. The inevitable setbacks and hardships he faced through a challenging recovery still didn’t stop him.
As it seems, nothing can stop Tim Conners from “redefining possible.”
Surviving cancer was the first obstacle, but Conners’ story is much more than his fight for survival. In fact, that is where his story just begins, he said.
“I was at a point in my life where I questioned, what kind of life is this for me? I could barely move, I’m now blind. I asked myself, is life worth living in those moments when you’re tested the most because you feel like you’ve lost it all,” Conners told Oswego County Today.
But with an unbreakable spirit, those moments of doubt left as quickly as they came and he vowed that even though cancer took his eyesight, he wouldn’t let it touch his spirit.
Today, he commutes once a week to complete his last semester at Ithaca College to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, he has a newly published book for sale, and has raised nearly $20,000 for a fundraiser that both challenges him as an individual and gives back to multiple organizations that he feels he owes his life to.
MounTimPossible, this Fulton native’s ambitious plan to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to the highest point on the African continent will simultaneously raise money for four organizations that Conners feels saved his life: No Barriers USA, Joe Andruzzi Foundation, Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital, and the Michael Napoleone Memorial Foundation, Inc.
Much like summiting a mountain, Conners has climbed over every obstacle thrown his way in his 22 years of life without ever losing his drive to reach the top.
A sudden diagnosis of T-cell acute lymphoblastic lymphoma came in spring 2010, Conners’ freshman year of high school, of which a tumor the size of a football in his chest halted life as he knew it as a football, wrestling, and track athlete on pace to break school records.
An immediate dose of chemo was the beginning of a long and challenging battle for his life, with a relapse less than three months after treatment that found the cancer was in the central nervous system and was attacking his eyes.
Surgery to salvage what was left of his vision became immediate priority as Conners was wheeled to the operating room.
“I yelled for my mom to come back in, grabbed her face and said ‘if I’m going to lose my sight completely I want your face to be the last thing I see,’ and then I woke up with the vision I have now,” Conners said, which he refers to as “non-usable vision” with a slight light perception in one eye that proves very inconsistent.
His mother and father, Betsy and Mike Conners didn’t leave his side as he battled every day to show his strength and win this war.
“There were times when his dad and I would get pretty discouraged about the cards life had dealt us and then it would be Tim and his attitude that would make us say ‘what gives us the right to feel this way?’ He is our inspiration,” Betsy said.
The family’s optimism persisted, even when it was deemed that Conners would need a bone marrow transplant. After the whole family was tested, one match prevailed.
“The only donor was my brother, Michael. He was actually a perfect marrow match so that was a blessing, some people have multiple siblings and family members and none of them can be a match. He was the perfect match for me which was very, very lucky,” Conners explained.
Though postponing the surgery for a week because of persistent fevers, Conners received the transplant in September 2010 at Boston Children’s Hospital, but his body continued to weaken as heart, lung and kidney failure forced him to undergo dialysis and landed him in the Intensive Care Unit.
His family was warned, “eventually they had diagnosed I wasn’t going to make it,” he recalled. They prepared the community by alerting teachers in the high school of the current prognosis.
But suddenly, “my body fought back. Things weren’t getting any worse, I was stabilizing.” Slowly, he was released from ICU, no longer dependent on a morphine pump,and shortly after, he was ready to tackle physical therapy but for this, he headed back toward home for treatment at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse.
Though he was closer, this was just the start of his recovery process before he could really return home.
They started small, first standing, then taking 10 steps a day while his dad held him up with a gait belt, cherishing every accomplishment, big and small.
“We set daily goals no matter how small – for example, I will stand for two minutes today. We would then work all day on meeting that goal. When we met it we would celebrate that. Each and every day we did that not only through his initial recovery but also as he began to approach daily living in a visual world without sight. I would say OK, we are going to have a 2 minute pity party and then it is over and time to move on,” Betsy said.
And each day, his strength grew as he said he was basically “shedding one body to gain a new,” as a result of the bone marrow transplant which essentially reset his whole immune system, requiring him to get shots he had in infancy again and even spend a year in near isolation.
After more than 100 days in the hospital, he got the OK to return home in December.
Though home, finally, he was returning to a place and a life he had to relearn without sight.
Physical therapists, occupational therapists, and tutors from school all visited his home regularly to continue his progression gaining strength and maintain his course to graduating high school.
Eventually, his strength becomes enough to wear leg braces instead of a walker and he returns to G. Ray High School in his junior year despite being advised not to return to school full-time right away.
Typical to Conners’ strong nature, he returned by his own determination and never missed a day.
By winter, he was given an audio book by Erik Weihenmayer, the story of how a blind man climbed the highest mountain on each continent and remains the only blind person to climb the world’s highest mountain, Everest.
“I read it and I said, ‘I need to meet him,’” Conners said.
Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Conners soon found himself on a conference call with Weihenmayer, feeling immediately inspired.
Coming out of that call, Conners said, “This is great but if I’m going to go do this, I can’t wear these leg braces anymore,” and took them off, never looking back.
He went on to keep slowly gaining strength, returning to track in the spring and even football in the fall though on a no-contact condition.
But during the senior night game, after being crowned Homecoming King, the opposing team agreed not to hit him and Conners was able to play for 69 yards.
“For non-contact, the way my mother came out and gave me a hug afterwards might have been breaking the rules,” he joked. “But it was an amazing experience with my friends and I went on to win the NYS 12th Man Award.”
The award usually goes to a big player who typically gets injured and can’t participate in the thick of things but continues to support his team, Conners explained.
But he still didn’t stop there, he continued to wrestling where he pushed his body to its absolute limits, sometimes even past its limits.
He graduated seventh in his class of 287 students, he had 21 college credits from high school, but before starting his college career in Ithaca, he traveled to the Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts for an independent living program and then continued on to college.
Classes went well, teachers were accommodating, he found his way around campus rather seamlessly, and he was involved in a lot of activities including debate team that allowed him to travel throughout the country and Jamaica.
But his thoughts remained on Weihenmayer and the inspiration he had gained. Conners had met him in Colorado the summer before college at a No Barriers Summit, and describes him as playing a “key role” in his life ever since.
Since then, they have developed a close friendship, adventuring together starting with a hike up a hill and progressing to the Grand Canyon and most recently, hiking his first 14,000-foot mountain, Mt. Sherman.
Trudging through snow, slipping on ice, struggling to balance, carrying a heavy pack, taking shocks from the poles through a thunderstorm, crab walking and bear crawling, and even accepting the new nickname “Master Shredder” after he ripped his pants, he made his way up and down the mountain despite the dangerous weather conditions that surrounded them.
“It just felt like we were going to die, it got pretty serious. The storm came out of nowhere and we weren’t ready for it,” he recalled. “But we made it back, and it was big moment. It was a good experience.”
An experience that didn’t turn him off from his goal of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, instead only prepared him for what it will be like if “all hell breaks lose,” he said.
The big trek to Africa is scheduled for May 22, just one day after his graduation commencement at Ithaca College.
Now, Conners trains more than three times per week by means of cardiovascular activity for more than an hour, standing for ten hours straight, wearing a backpack to get accustom to the weight of the pack during the climb, wearing a mask to lower oxygen and simulate high altitudes, and core strength exercises.
But any apprehension Conners has isn’t from the physical feat in itself, he said.
“I don’t think my fears are of the mountain itself, I feel more optimistic in that the physical obstacles are not going to be what prevents my success. Instead, to get people really involved and want to be apart of this mission of giving back and helping others, and then just staying consistent and emotionally strong,” Conners said, are areas he feels need priority focus.
His mother agreed, her confidence in her son outweighing her fear.
“I am thrilled that Tim is not only surviving but thriving. I am not afraid for Tim because Tim has been given a true gift, by all accounts of medicine he should not be here today but he is and now he has to show himself and the world what he is made of,” Betsy said.
Partnered with the non-for profit K-2 Adventures Foundation, Conners will be lead by a guide to the top of the 19,341-foot summit along with a few friends to support and document him as well as his father and uncle.
“MounTimPossible isn’t about me climbing a mountain. It’s about people around the world standing up and not accepting the limitations that others put on themselves in going out and doing something successful on their own,” Conners said. “The biggest thing I want people to see is that I’m a cancer survivor, I’m blind, I still have nerve damage, I face complications and issues, the medications I take daily probably number to 20, all these things are still real issues in my life, so it’s not just one thing its that in spite of everything that’s going on, I’m going to do this. And if I can do this, you can too. You can live your life to the fullest, make a difference in the world no matter who you are, you can redefine possible. You don’t have to let what others tell you is possible for yourself be whats actually possible for you, I think that’s something people can rally behind and that’s the message I want heard.”
His dedication to remain positive and focused on helping other people are qualities his mom hopes he never loses.
“We are truly blessed with Tim’s positivity. His mindset has totally made the difference,” Betsy said. “What makes me the proudest is that Tim is willing to pay it forward and give back to organizations and groups who have helped him. Tim is a very kind person who wears his heart on his sleeve. He would help anyone at any time and he does.”
But this fundraiser is just one step in Conners’ larger plan for his life, centered around helping others.
“I plan to continue speaking, I want to continue going around and sharing my story and provide hope to people. I want to provide people with the principles and action they can start taking in their life to make achieving whatever they want in the face of the adversity that their against possible. I want to do something that has a great impact, to work in a philanthropic way where I can support others to be successful. My life goal is just to give back, and to really just be me throughout it all,” he said.
For more information on Tim’s mission to climb Kilimanjaro and raise support for these organizations or to make a donation, visit his website www.MounTimPossible.com.