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.”
I have grieved my loss of sight. You have to picture what you can do in your head first, and then the possibilities are limitless.
Tim emerged from his cancer treatment blind and so weakened that he couldn’t walk. He relied on a wheelchair or a walker. “Getting into the house was like climbing Everest,” he recalls. With physical therapy, Tim graduated from a walker and gait belt to leg braces. He didn’t fit the profile of an aspiring mountain climber, but after listening to Erik’s book “Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther than the Eye Can See,” Tim knew the wish he would request.
In December 2011, Tim spoke with Erik by telephone for the first time. “Erik mentioned things like climbing a frozen waterfall. He didn’t care what my limitations were,” Tim recalls. “I went to my mom and said, ‘I’m never going to wear my leg braces again.’” With that, Tim trained himself to manage his impaired sensation and toe drop without the braces.
In 2012, Tim redeemed his wish. Aided by sighted guides, Erik had him zip-lining over the Colorado River on day one. The rope bridge had no handles and was missing steps. “I’m freaking out,” Tim says, “And Erik’s jumping on it like there’s nothing to worry about.” Next came white water rafting. “The first run, I was terrified and crying,” Tim says. “By the third time I was jumping out of the boat and getting back in.” They rode tandem bikes. Tim was so weak he could barely climb a small hill.
“It took me a long time to go through the ‘why me?’ and ‘it means I’m not going to do anything with my life,’” Tim says. “I didn’t push myself out of my comfort zone. I was looking for something and wanting to get back into the world. Now I go back for more and want to be immersed in it.”
In 2014, Tim participated in a Grand Canyon trip with Erik’s No Barriers program. Last summer Erik, Tim and two guides, leading the way with bells, climbed Mount Sherman. A video capturing the ascent shows Tim gingerly proceeding with trekking poles instead of his cane and seeing eye dog. A guide teaches him how to correctly place his boot in the snow for maximum traction. Erik demonstrates how he takes “a tiny little rest” with each step. At the summit, the two blind men hug.
Now 22, Tim is training for Mount Kilimanjaro, following a regimen prescribed by his group’s guide, who has climbed the African mountain 29 times, including several ascents with blind hikers.
“I have grieved my loss of sight,” Tim says. “You have to picture what you can do in your head first, and then the possibilities are limitless.”