Dad finishes 'Abbey's Ride For Life,' visits Florida hospital that cared for dying daughter before organ donations
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—Bill Conner wanted only one thing when he left Madison in May on his 2,000-mile bike trip, which included a Father's Day stop to listen to his daughter's heart beating inside a Louisiana man.
Conner wanted the world to know his daughter, Abbey: the UW-Whitewater junior studying public relations, the “giver,” the “lover” who always had her friends' backs.
Monday, Conner crossed the finish line at Broward Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Abbey was flown after being found in a pool in Cancún, Mexico. The medical center's doctors and nurses took care of her for days before she died Jan. 12.
She was 20 years old.
She was also an organ donor.
Conner said he accomplished what he wanted. Videos about his Father's Day stop in Louisiana, posted by national and international news media, amassed an estimated 100 million views worldwide in 18 different languages, he said in an interview with The Gazette.
The Louisiana stop almost didn't happen. Conner's schedule called for him to ride 60 to 70 miles per day, six days per week, without stopping in the area.
But just days before June 18, he knew he could not pass up the opportunity.
So Conner spent Father's Day with Loumonth Jack Jr., one of four people who received organs from Abbey. With a stethoscope, Conner listened to Abbey's heart inside Jack's body.
Conner believes he was with his daughter on Father's Day.
“As far as I'm concerned, Abbey is alive,” Conner said. “That's her heart inside of him pumpin'.”
He called the day “bittersweet.” Abbey was gone, but Jack and his family were there.
“I had talked to Jack on the phone five or six times prior to Father's Day, so we've taken the time to get to know each other a little bit,” Conner said. “I mean, obviously as a father I would love to have my daughter here with me. But at the same time, that would mean Jack wouldn't be with us.
“So it was a good day. It was a day in which two fathers were able to celebrate Father's Day,” Conner said. “Jack's alive.”
Throughout the trip, Conner shared updates on his Facebook page, where his profile picture features Abbey beaming under a big gray hat. He ended many of his posts with, “Hugs to all from Abbey and her proud father, Bill.”
Conner arrived at the hospital Monday, right on schedule. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler gave Conner a key to the city.
Abbey was a helper, and Conner said he wanted to continue that legacy. His Gofundme page, “Abbey's Ride For Life,” raised $22,595 from 476 people in three months. Throughout his trip, he asked people to register as organ donors.
“Nobody pays attention to anything until it shows up on your doorstep,” Conner said. “You can't be selfish enough to bury things that can help other people live. You're dead.
“It's about your legacy. What better legacy could you have than, in a tragedy, that you were willing give up your organs to let somebody else live or live a better life?”
Twenty-two people die each day waiting for organs, according to donatelife.net. One organ donor can save up to eight lives.
For Conner, Abbey's Ride For Life is a celebration of life. However, her death remains a mystery.
Abbey and her brother, Austin, were on winter break in Mexico. They were at a poolside bar at their hotel. From then on, Austin cannot remember anything, Conner said.
The next thing Austin knew, he was in the hospital, and Abbey was on life support. The water was only waist-high. Conner believes someone slipped something in their drinks.
Conner said the police told him there was no reason to file a report because the death was an accident. He said the hotel won't let them on the property or allow them to view security footage.
“It's ridiculous,” Conner said.
Abbey's death is a mystery for another day. Conner said he wanted to finish his bike trip before spending time on something else.
For now, he deals with his pain by remembering the good his daughter accomplished.
“It took the sting out of it, knowing she helped four men live, to live better lives,” he said. “She liked to help people in need. So I'm just carrying the torch for her now.”