– Honoring Connor in art and in life –
By Dan England
Over time, Travis and Jennifer Gillmore would find so many ways to honor their son Connor who died in 2018. But their first step was to honor his wishes to be an organ donor. That, it turns out, would be the toughest.
When they arrived at North Colorado Medical Center after a counselor called about his rollover crash, they were greeted by friends and family and a representative from Donor Alliance eager to talk to them. A doctor had already told them, as they rushed back home from a trip, that Connor had suffered “non-survivable” injuries, but the shock was still too difficult to bear, and getting to the hospital only made it more surreal.
Connor suffered no injuries in the crash, except for head trauma. He looked eerily normal. Monitors that surrounded his body still beeped with life, as if it was a sick joke.
His organs were precious, and he was a perfect candidate: It explained why Donor Alliance wanted to talk to them. But they weren’t ready less than 24 hours after they’d heard about the crash. Jennifer yelled at the representative to go away.
“We didn’t know a damn thing about organ donation,” Travis recalls.
In the bed, Connor still seemed like the 22-year-old who loved to rebuild Toyota cars and swim for Greeley West and coupled a gorgeous smile with mischief in his eyes. He’d mercilessly tease his three young siblings, scaring them with the Greeley Gremlin from Monster Day, wrestling with his brothers and calling out during a clean-up session that they were “120 percent effort and 0 percent talent.”
Travis and Jennifer didn’t want to think about carving him up for spare parts. But when they obtained his driver’s license from the police the next day, they saw he’d chosen to be an organ donor. They believe now that a friend’s decision, Layne Duzel, to donate a kidney to a Greeley City Councilwoman Sandi Elder may have inspired him to check the box.
They said yes and recognizing the enormity of their decision—his unbroken body would help so many people—the hospital granted him an honor walk to the elevators, where doctors and nurses filled the hallways and clapped. They said goodbye to him alone as a family in the hospital basement.
“I’ll see you soon,” Meghan, his sister, told him.
“NO, YOU WON’T,” Jennifer said back, and that’s when they learned to honor him with laughter, even if it seemed inappropriate at times. Connor’s sense of humor seemed too large for one person. He’d sing along to the radio to make Meghan laugh. He’d wear sarcastic T-shirts. He once changed Jennifer’s phone to identify him as “my bestest, most loved child” because he was confident she wouldn’t know how to change it back.
They would later make memorial bracelets for special occasions, holidays and trips to Disney World. They finished rebuilding a second Toyota MR2 he’d started (he was driving the first when he crashed). They created scholarships for his school, St. Mary’s in Greeley, and the Aims Community College automotive program. They did monthly toasts.
They also became champions of organ donation, attending events and participating in the Donor Dash and the Quilt Square project and donating money to spread the word. They wear organ donation bracelets alongside their Connor bracelets.
More recently, they were key funders and organizers of a wall designed by Greeley artist Betony Coons that honored organ donors. They gave speeches at the unveiling in the first part of September. The art featured a tree of life with animals used in the Donate Life campaign and a digital display to educate people about donation and allow them to sign up on the spot.
“One of the things that we constantly say,” Travis said at the unveiling, “is that all we have is time to honor Connor.”
• • •
Olivia Eisenhauer was born to play volleyball. She was 6-foot-tall and loved watching sports with her father. She practiced and played for a club team, sometimes for hours a day. And then, in eighth grade, she walked off the court for the last time.
Her heart gave out.
When she came to, she learned the only thing that saved her was a portable defibrillator some schools began carrying just a few years ago. When a good Samaritan jump-started her heart, she’d been dead for five minutes. Doctors diagnosed her with restrictive cardiomyopathy. The only cure is a heart transplant. That was the end of volleyball. That was the end of her world as she knew it. She couldn’t even work out.
Olivia says as she entered high school, it became difficult to walk up stairs. Connor’s heart changed all that. She’s now 20 and attending Arizona State University to become a sideline reporter for sports broadcasts.
She tried to write a letter to the Gillmores for months, trashing many drafts, until, on the one-year anniversary of the transplant, she sat down and cried and wrote, as she puts it, from the heart. They contacted each other after signing release forms and agreed to meet in Steamboat Springs while Olivia was in Colorado on a pre-college trip.
Since then, they’ve learned about many of the people Connor helped. One received a bone in her foot that allowed her to walk comfortably again. Another got a kidney.
But, “I just really, really wanted to know where his heart went,” Jennifer says.
Olivia walked up to them and said thank you and apologized and then broke down.
“We were all a mess,” Jennifer says.
They were delighted to discover that Olivia was like them in many ways, with a strong faith and a love for sports and laughter. She keeps in close contact with them, especially Meghan, whom Olivia calls her sister.
“They’re my second family,” Olivia says.
Olivia still feels what she calls “not guilt, but kinda guilt.” She wants to make them proud and live life to the fullest, but sometimes her life is so full that she feels bad about Connor’s being cut so short.
“It should be straight joy,” she says. “But I know I’m living my dreams, and Connor isn’t getting to do that. It’s a balance.”
So besides living life, she hopes to honor him in other ways. She is an advocate for the American Heart Association and tells her story whenever she can, urging people to get on the donor list so others like her can be saved. She believes she was gifted Connor’s heart for a reason: She has the visibility and the articulation to tell people about how he saved her.
Olivia’s worked hard, with internships at local stations, and it’s paying off. This early November, she will have her first gig as a sideline reporter with ESPNU. The Gillmores gave her one of their Connor bracelets. At the gig, whenever she isn’t on camera, she plans to wear it.