Distraught over his daughter’s sudden death at age 20, Bill Conner, of Oregon, is bicycling 2,600 miles to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she became an organ donor, to encourage people to register as donors.
Abbey Conner, a junior at UW-Whitewater, and her brother, Austin, 23, were found in January at the bottom of a pool in Cancun, Mexico, during a family trip. He survived, but she didn’t.
Bill Conner believes someone slipped drugs into his children’s drinks. Whatever the cause, he is bringing attention to one way people can generate comfort in such tragedies: by donating their organs.
“Don’t be selfish and bury something that could help somebody else live, or live a better life,” he said.
Conner, 57, left the Madison area May 22, the day after Austin graduated from UW-Milwaukee. He plans to reach Fort Lauderdale by July 10. He’ll visit Broward Health Medical Center, where Abbey donated her organs, and scatter her ashes in the ocean.
On Sunday, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he met 21-year-old Loumonth Jack Jr., who received Abbey’s heart. Jack, who had two heart attacks from a viral infection, presented Conner with a stethoscope so he could listen to his daughter’s heart beating inside Jack’s chest.
The two embraced, with media and donor advocates looking on.
“Two fathers were able to celebrate Father’s Day,” Conner said in a phone interview Tuesday, before leaving Norwood, Louisiana, to bike to Franklinton, Louisiana.
“Jack was able to spend the day with his dad, and I was there with Abbey,” he said.
Three recipients received her kidneys, liver and pancreas, and many more likely benefited from her eyes and tissue, Conner said.
Abbey registered to be an organ donor when she got her driver’s license. “She already made that decision,” he said. “She was always one to help people in need.”
A graduate of Kettle Moraine High School, near her hometown of Pewaukee, Abbey was studying public relations at UW-Whitewater.
“We told her she should have been a lawyer,” her father said. “She loved to argue. She loved to be right.”
Abbey and Austin had spent just a couple of hours with their mother and step-father at a resort in Cancun when they were found in the pool, Conner said.
Austin told his father they ordered drinks from a poolside bar, and the next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital, Conner said. Abbey, who had an irreversible brain injury, was taken to Fort Lauderdale, where she was on life support until her organs were recovered.
Conner, who until recently sold Medicare plans for Humana, said he felt the need to do something positive in response to the misfortune. “It was closing in on me,” he said.
He took up bicycling only a few years ago, but rides about 3,000 miles each summer. Now he’s doing close to that in seven weeks.
Strangers have let him stay in their homes and contributed to his GoFundMe campaign, which he advertises with an “Abbey’s Ride for Life” sign on the back of his bicycle.
“It’s been amazing to see the generosity,” Connor said. “There’s so many good people out here.”