After a 12-hour surgery to remove a brain tumor the size of a lemon and weeks of therapy, 14-year-old Ian Conner returned to class at Carroll County Middle School last week. The road to how he got there, however, is nothing short of a miracle.
Despite a few reoccurring headaches over the previous few months, Conner was a seemingly happy and healthy eighth grader at CCMS. He was excited to join a contingent of youth from the First United Methodist Church of Hillsville on a weekend trip to Resurrection in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. After all, FUMC was one of the few churches that actually made the trip to Resurrection thanks to a winter storm that dumped about a foot of snow on Hillsville that Friday, January 22.
Everything changed two days later, however, as the youth group made a stop at the McDonald’s in Bristol. After getting off the bus, Conner slipped on the icy parking lot and hit his chin on the pavement. Inside the restaurant, Conner seemed to be recovering from the fall just fine. Upon leaving McDonald’s, however, he began to get dizzy and started throwing up. At that point, youth leaders decided to call 9-1-1. Within just a couple of hours, surgeons at a Bristol hospital discovered a tumor the size of a lemon in the back of Conner’s head.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Conner’s father Richie said. “It just accelerated the end result of having surgery and getting that thing taken care of. Yeah, it was bad it happened, but it was great we discovered it and got it taken care of. It is just amazing how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. If they hadn’t gone to Resurrection, number one with all the snow, we wouldn’t have found out when we did. And if not for the winter snow and ice and he hadn’t slipped and fell – it’s just amazing.”
A Scary Diagnosis
Ian’s mother, Renae Conner, will never forget the help FUMC youth leaders Ashley Koyenikan and Cary Simms provided that day. After first getting a call from Koyenikan about Ian’s fall, the family got updates from Simms during Ian’s trip to the hospital. Richie and Renae were soon on their way to the hospital when they got a text from Simms making them realize everything was not okay.
“Cary told us they took him for a CT scan. Ian was back in his room and they had sent the neurology doctor down. Cary said, ‘They didn’t see anything serious from the fall, but he wants to talk to you when you get here.’ That is not normal. Most people can add that together,” Renae Conner said. “When we got there, the doctor said he found something he didn’t expect to find on the CT. He said, ‘We did find a tumor. It is five centimeters, quite large, that is causing all these headache issues.’ He said, ‘It has to come out and it has to come out now.’”
The doctor, Jody Helms, informed the family he had already spoken with Dr. Kelly Mahaney at the University of Virginia and that Ian would have surgery that night or the following day. While Helms was a neurosurgeon, he was not a pediatrician and not as equipped to handle Ian’s surgery as she would be. Before long, Ian was on a helicopter for the 150-mile flight to Charlottesville.
“In the grand scheme of things and what is going on in this community, we have two children just diagnosed with Leukemia and another who is waiting on a diagnosis,” Renae Conner said. “We didn’t make any of these decisions. They were made for us, and in my heart I believe it was all in God’s timing. I think he knew his plan would be better than ours. I think he planned it out perfect for Ian.”
Ian would have two surgeries from Jan. 24-26. The first surgery January 24 was to place an external ventricle device to relieve the pressure on Ian’s brain. The second surgery for the removal of the tumor took 12 hours. After eight long hours and removal of the growth, Mahaney noticed a spot still lingering in his head, so four more hours were needed to remove the remaining pieces while Ian’s incision was still open. Thankfully, and perhaps miraculously, his tumor came back benign – a grade 1 pilocytic astrocytoma.
Ian’s diagnosis going forward is good. His oncologist and Dr. Mahaney have Ian on a schedule to be seen every three months for the next two years. Each time he will have a full head and brain MRI to make sure the tumor is not growing back and to make sure the cerebral spinal fluid in his head doesn’t increase. After the two years, he will continue the same treatment but only have to go every six months. From there, if everything is okay, he will only have to go once a year indefinitely.
Ian is currently wearing a patch over his right eye. It will stay until the eye heals, but it is getting better, his mother said. Meanwhile, Ian began going back to third and fourth block classes at CCMS last week and was expecting to return to class fulltime this week with the exception of P.E.
“There is not much that bothers him,” Renae Conner said. “He is a good spirit.”
Ian had been having headaches for a while, she said, and the family tried Tylenol, Motrin, Advil and every other over-the-counter remedy they could. Renae said Ian texted her the Saturday of the Pigeon Forge trip saying he didn’t feel good.
“I told Richie with him not going to school that next week, we need to see a doctor. They were intermittent in nature, never a constant kind of thing. You just don’t think it could be a tumor,” she said. “But it all added up together the way it should have. Had it happened here, we would have probably ended up in Brenner’s Hospital (in Winston-Salem, N.C.), but because it happened in Bristol, by the time we got there the neurosurgeon there had already started making plans to get us to UVa. Dr. Mahaney was amazing. God led us to the right place with the right provider.”
Through the process, Renae has become good friends with Emily Brown, mother of four-year-old “Mighty Max” Brown, who was recently diagnosed with Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The support both families have received has been incredible, she said.
“Emily and I talk a lot. She reached out to me on surgery day and she and I really connected. We talk almost daily now about the kids and the amazing things and the miracles happening,” Conner said. “She and I both really agree this is why we live in a small town. You wouldn’t get this kind of caring and people praying for your child in a large city. This is why we raised our kids here and stayed here. And it continues still. People I don’t even know come up to me at Food Lion and Walmart asking about Ian. It’s amazing.”
If anything, the speed at which Ian’s diagnosis came was a blessing to the family, Richie Conner said. Through it all, their faith in God shined through to the whole community as they constantly updated Ian’s status through Facebook.
“When we found out, I knew we were going to pray about it and turn it over to God and he was going to take care of it,” Richie Conner said. “Because it happened so fast, we didn’t have time to really think about it. Just this is what has to be done and we are going to go with it. But I do want to praise the church’s youth leaders. Cary took exceptional care of Ian and kept us informed and kept everybody calm and collected. Everybody, from all aspects, has just been unbelievable.”
Simms credited Sarah Geisler for taking charge of the situation in Bristol and comforting Ian once he started to become ill.
“After about two minutes, she looked at me and drilled into my eyes to call 9-1-1 now,” Simms said. “And the ER people in Bristol want to always take care of everybody, but when it is a child, you just wouldn’t believe the response. They did everything they possibly could do.”
Most importantly, Simms has been amazed at how Ian’s family has handled the situation from the very beginning.
“We are told by God that we need to look to him even in tough trials and expect tough trials, but if we stay close to him things will work out close to his plan. This family kept themselves open and engaged the community by sharing throughout about his status, and they just stayed positive throughout this whole thing,” Simms said. “They weren’t shaken by this and they never got mad at God for this happening. It just shows how strong and faithful they were.”
A Spaghetti dinner fundraiser benefit for medical expenses for Ian Conner and his family will be held Sunday, March 20 at the Hillsville VFW from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Spaghetti dinner will also include salad, bread and dessert. There will be an auction with auctioneer Dennis Ward. Not Ashamed will perform at 11:30 a.m., followed by Craig Vaughn performing Christian rock/rock music. Donations to the family can also be made at www.youcaring.com/Ian online.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN