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. 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.
Conners’ wish came true. He had 2½ terrifying but transformative days of outdoor adventures in Colorado with Weihenmayer, who lost his sight to a degenerative eye disorder at 13. Now, Conners is training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the 19,000-foot peak in Tanzania, shortly after he graduates from Ithaca College in May.
“In a lot of ways,” Conners, now 22, says, “losing my sight gave me my vision.”
Conners’ journey began on April 3, 2010, when he was diagnosed at the Syracuse pediatric hospital near his home with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Conners had T-cell ALL, a very aggressive subset that required intense chemotherapy to push his leukemia into remission. But it was back three months later, this time in his eyes. Surgery failed to save Conners’ sight.
Next came a hematopoietic stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in September 2010. Because his cancer had relapsed, Conners needed additional radiation and chemotherapy prior to the normal intensive pre-treatment required to make room for his brother’s healthy stem cells, increasing his risk of complications. He spent part of his hospital stay in the intensive care unit with life-threatening heart and kidney failure and fluid overload in his lungs. Pediatric specialists from Boston Children’s Hospital worked with his transplant team to save him.
“Honestly,” Conners says, “a miracle happened. Thanks to my stubbornness, great doctors, and a mother who checked everything, I was able to rebound.”
“Tim was a very challenging patient,” says Esther Obeng, MD, PhD. “But he’s a fighter and was able to recover.”
Conners emerged from his cancer treatment blind and too weak to walk. “Getting into the house was like climbing Everest,” he recalled. With physical therapy, Conners graduated from a walker and gait belt to leg braces.
Although he didn’t fit the profile of an aspiring mountain climber, after listening to Weihenmayer’s book “Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man’s Journey to Climb Farther than the Eye Can See,” Conners knew the wish he would request.
He abandoned his leg braces after his first phone call phone with Weihenmayer in December 2011, and in 2012, Conners redeemed his wish. Aided by sighted guides, Weihenmayer 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,” Conners remembers, “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,” Conners says. “By the third time I was jumping out of the boat and getting back in.” They rode tandem bikes. Conners was so weak he could barely climb a small hill.
“It took me a long time to go through the ‘why me?’,” Conners recalls. “I was looking for something to get back into the world. Now I go back for more and want to be immersed in it.”
In 2014, Conners trekked and rafted in the Grand Canyon with Weihenmayer’s No Barriers program. Last summer, Weihenmayer, Conners, and two guides, leading the way with bells, climbed Mount Sherman, a 14,043-foot summit in Colorado.
Now, Conners 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,” Conners says. “You have to picture what you can do in your head first, and then the possibilities are limitless.”