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Transplant Recipient Inspired by Tillman
September 18th, 2013

Transplant recipient inspired by Tillman

A 20-year-old who was suffering from end-stage heart and kidney failure, Bill Coon was lying in his hospital bed back in October 2009 when a special visitor walked into his room. 

Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, whose infant daughter Tiana had received a life-saving heart transplant a year earlier, had learned about Coon’s dire situation through a friend of a friend. Tillman visited the avid Bears fan, spending several hours with him playing Xbox and chatting. 

“It was hands-down the biggest highlight of my entire 70-day hospital stay,” Coon said. “I was blown away. It was the last thing I expected, to be honest with you. It was so cool. I was actually shocked. I was star struck. You don’t expect a Bears player to walk into your room, let alone a veteran one and an elite one like Charles.” 

Coon was born on April 24, 1989 with a congenital birth defect. Three weeks later, with only hours to live, he became the eighth infant in the nation to receive a heart transplant. Coon remained healthy for two decades, but that changed radically on June 8, 2009 when he was rushed to the hospital and told by doctors that he would need heart and kidney transplants to survive.

Coon received both organs a little more than two months later, saving his life. Throughout his long hospital stay, the Lake Zurich, Ill., native wrote down all of his thoughts in a journal, which he later turned into a book entitled “Swim: A Memoir of Survival.” 

“I was in the hospital for 70 days and right around the first week of being diagnosed I didn’t have a place to vent, so I started writing journal entries,” Coon said. 

“It was therapeutic, but it also clicked that I have a big family to support me. I realized how huge a support system is when you’re going through something like end-stage organ failure and there are a lot of people out there who don’t have anyone who understands what they’re going through or supporting them through their illness. 

“I wanted to be that support system for everyone else. So I basically dedicated my entire journey and my entire life at that point to making sure I wrote down every feeling and emotion into a page of that book of journal entries with the hope that someday someone will read it that doesn’t have a big family and not feel alone.”

Coon recalls the lift he felt when Tillman walked into his hospital room and wants to provide a similar boost through the book “Swim” to those in need of organ transplants. 

“Just because Charles is an incredible athlete and has the God-given talents to be able to do what he does on the field, he’s able to also take that and mix it with his incredibly generous personality and help people like me in the hospital by cheering them up and bringing them happiness,” Coon said. 

“I wasn’t given that God-given ability to be that skillful on the field. But because God gave me the ability to write, I’m able to do my own philanthropic thing and help people out and aid people during their darkest hours.”

Now 24, Coon is a motivational speaker who shares his story with audiences on behalf of the American Heart Association and other organizations as well as on his website BillCoonBooks.com. He also has volunteered for Tillman’s Cornerstone Foundation and will always feel a kinship with the Bears cornerback due to the transplant that Tillman’s daughter needed to survive. 

“The whole situation of facing death as a family, what the whole family goes through, and the toll it takes on a family, that alone is a bond that is so rare,” Coon said. “Few people understand it.”