Bill Conner stood in the driveway of a camp along the False River on Sunday, having just dismounted from the bicycle he's been riding for the past four weeks from his home in Oregon, Wisconsin. He had come to the Pointe Coupee Parish community of Ventress to receive an eagerly awaited Father’s Day gift.
Minutes later, it arrived: A young man drove up to the camp, embraced Conner and handed him a stethoscope.
“So you can hear your daughter’s heart,” he told Conner.
The young man is Loumonth Jack Jr., the recipient of the heart donated by Abbey Conner, Bill Conner’s 20-year-old daughter, who died in January.
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Jack unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a long scar. Conner placed the stethoscope on Jack’s chest and grew emotional, listening to a heart he last heard beat when his daughter was in a hospital bed on life support in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Abbey Conner, along with her 23-year-old brother, Austin Conner, had been taken there after being found face down in a pool at a resort in Cancun, Mexico. Austin survived and has recovered. Abbey died on Jan. 12.
She was an organ donor, and her heart was soon transplanted into Jack, a 21-year-old Vacherie resident whose own heart was failing.
With help from the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency, Jack was able to get in touch with Bill Conner, and the two struck up a friendship over the phone. Conner — who will bike a total of 2,600 miles to visit the hospital where his daughter died and to spread her ashes into the ocean sometime around July 10 — scheduled a stop along the way to meet Jack.
The meeting took place Sunday at the camp in Ventress, which belongs to Frank and June Hillyard. Conner is taking a break there before embarking on the rest of his journey, which he hopes will raise awareness of organ donation.
He spent the afternoon with Jack and his family, jokingly asking, “Has he been sassier that usual lately?” Conner related how his daughter, who he described as “a pistol,” liked to “argue and be right.” She was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who hoped to pursue a career in public relations and had many, many friends.
Conner said the idea of a bike ride to honor his daughter came to him after a friend of his biked across the U.S. from coast to coast. Taking such a trip appealed to Conner, who was struggling to process his daughter’s death, which he suspects stemmed from someone slipping drugs into her drink in Cancun.
“I had to do something,” Conner said. “I had to get out because it was just consuming me.”
He has been riding an average of 60 to 65 miles a day, 6 days per week. Along his route, he has been sharing the story of his daughter with countless people who ask him about the “Abbey’s Ride for Life” sign on the back of his bicycle.
In addition to Jack, at least three other people have received organs from Abbey Conner, her father said, and her donated tissues could eventually help hundreds. Conner said that has taken “a lot of the sting out of” her death.
About 2.4 million people in Louisiana are registered as organ donors, and about 2,000 people in the state are on waiting lists for organs that match their needs, said LOPA community educator Lori Steele.
Jack needed a heart transplant after he had two heart attacks, the first which he brushed off.
“I’m thinking, oh, I’m 20, I’m not thinking I’m having a heart attack,” Jack said. “I’m thinking this is acid reflux, so I went to the gas station and got some Pepto Bismol.”
Doctors soon determined Jack’s heart had been seriously damaged by a viral infection and that he would need a transplant. About three months later, on Jan. 13, Jack got a new heart as well as “a different grasp on reality,” he said.
“My life has gotten better,” he said. “When I was in heart failure, that had become very depressing, whereas now … I’m just enjoying and appreciating the life I’m in, and realizing how beautiful things really are.”
Jack has mostly recovered and plans to return to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he studied business management before his surgery.
He said he’s thankful not only for Abbey Conner’s heart but for the connection he now has with her father.
“You can’t just get relationships like that," Jack said. "His daughter is living in me.”