“Life Story,” posted each Saturday on Leader Publications’ website, focuses on one individual’s impact on his or her community. Today’s story is written by Laura Marlow.
Her blonde hair flying and her freckled face sporting a wide grin, Jessica Connor, 10, was the picture of health right up until she collapsed while jumping on a trampoline in the backyard of her family’s De Soto home on Sept. 10.
Jessica died Sept. 16 at St. Louis Children’s Hospital following six days during which doctors searched for a reason and her family waited anxiously for answers. But the Jessica they knew was gone.
“From the time this happened, she never regained consciousness,” said her father, Jason Connor.
Back in June, the family was at a wedding reception when Jessica fell and hit her head.
“We took her to the ER at St. John’s (Mercy Hospital St. Louis), and they checked her out and said she was OK,” Jason said. “It was unclear how she fell; she couldn’t remember. She had a mild concussion, but all her vitals and everything were good. The doctors said it was probably just one of those things kids do sometimes, and she was fine.”
The family, which includes mom Tracy and brother Aaron, 12, gradually put the incident out of their minds, and went on with their busy lives.
Until Sept. 10.
Jessica was playing on the trampoline with a friend when she tumbled to the ground and could not be roused.
“The little girl with her thought at first Jessica was goofing with her,” Jason said. “Then, when she couldn’t get any response from her, she went and got my wife.”
Tracy Connor had her son call 911, and operators began to relay directions for performing CPR.
“My wife was too frantic to do it, so Aaron stepped in,” Jason said. “He has been a Boy Scout for several years, and he has a red card – training in CPR. He did it till the fire department got there.
“A lot of people, they might know how to do it (CPR), but they aren’t able to do it under emergency conditions. But here he’s a 12-year-old boy, and he’s doing CPR on his 10-year-old sister. He did a great job, and we are so proud of him.”
Emergency responders took over CPR, and Jessica was taken by ambulance to Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Crystal City.
“They had to shock her (defibrillation) three times on the way before they finally got a steady pulse,” Jason said. “At the hospital, they wanted to rule out the possibility of a neck injury, so they did a CT scan. They couldn’t tell from that, so they air-flighted her to Children’s.”
Once at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Jessica was moved to the pediatric ER, then to the CICU – Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.
“They did an MRI, and determined there was no damage to her neck,” her father said. “They began to think it was heart-related.”
Eventually, doctors told the Connors they believed Jessica had a rare condition called catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia or CPVT. This inherited genetic disorder causes the heart’s electrical system to malfunction and the heart to beat abnormally at moments of extreme emotion. It affects only 1 in 10,000 people, and is difficult to diagnose, because tests done at any other times don’t show any irregularities.
“Doctors told us she went into cardiac arrest and it was nothing to do with the trampoline except that’s where she happened to be at the time,” her father said. “With this condition, it could have been triggered through any type of adrenaline – sports, stress, even laughing.
“She was always active, always running around or playing basketball or softball. It could have happened at any moment during those things.”
Doctors think Jessica’s condition prevented the CPR from doing her any good.
“The specialists think the incident back in June triggered an arrhythmia, and basically stopped her heart,” Jason said. “She collapsed, but then her heart restarted.
“This time, it was deadly – when she collapsed, her heart didn’t stop, it kept pulsing, like a spasm. It actually interfered with the CPR.”
Because Jessica was so long without oxygen, she had severe damage to her internal organs and, more significantly, to her brain.
“In the CICU, they kept giving us bad news after bad news, like every other minute,” Jason said. “It’s bad enough hearing your 10-year-old daughter had a heart attack; now they’re telling us she has brain damage, too.
“It was a roller coaster ride. We’d get a call, and they would say ‘Get down here; she may not make it.’ We’d get there, be hovering over her, and then she’d stabilize. That happened six times.”
In the end, the decision was made to take Jessica off the life-support machinery.
“They pronounced her brain dead; there were no functions in her brain. When we took her off the vent, that was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever experienced in my life,” her father said. “To watch your 10-year-old just….just pass away was surreal. To this day, it feels like a bad dream.
“When she got up Sept. 10, she was fine. She’s always been active and constantly moving, just a normal little girl. We never imagined we would experience what we’re experiencing.”
Doctors told the Connors there was virtually no way they could have picked up on Jessica’s condition through regular tests.
“They told us you would have had to have been looking for a specific needle in a haystack to find it,” Jason said. “It’s supposed to be a hereditary thing, but there’s been no sign of this, ever, in either of our families. There was no way to know any of this.”
Jason and Tracy Connor are former children’s pastors at the Pevely-area Victory Church, and they say they have received invaluable support from their Victory “family.”
“Honestly, the only thing that has kept us going through all of this has been our family, our friends, our faith, and the prayers of people who don’t even know us,” Jason said. “We had people praying in Australia, Samoa, Jamaica, Costa Rica – not counting everyplace in the United States. And we got a lot of support from other local churches, too. “
The family expects to struggle with the healing process for a long time.
“It’s kind of touch-and-go,” Jason said. “We have our moments where things are pretty decent, when we’re getting through this. Then other moments, something will trigger it.
“I saw a sock monkey in the checkout line at Kohl’s, and that just set me off. She liked sock monkeys. Tracy saw a turtle in the highway, and that got to her. Jessica loved turtles; she’d catch them and name them.
“There are so many little reminders. We see her everywhere. Everywhere we look, there’s something.”
The Connors hope to become involved with volunteering at Children’s Hospital, wanting to share their experience in a way that might help other families.
Jason Connor said his hope is that his experience can help other families realize how precious their time together is, no matter how short.
“It’s amazing how many times we were at Forest Park this summer, just enjoying life, and we’d see helicopters fly over going to Children’s,” he said. “You take things for granted until you’re faced with something like this.”
“Don’t take your kids for granted. We try to fast-forward to the next thing. It’s soccer to school functions to something else; we’re constantly rushing to the next thing.
“Some of the best memories I have of Jessica are those times when we did take the time to pause and enjoy. Nothing fancy – just enjoying each other. That’s the most important thing as a family.
“When this happened, I found myself wanting to rewind, to go back and enjoy some of those moments.”
Talking with others in the same situation helps a little.
“We’ve talked with several families who have lost children, and they can empathize,” Jason said. “But every situation is different. They say, ‘You’re going to get through this. It will get easier,’ but you know you’re always going to have a hole in your heart.”
And they will always have their memories of Jessica.
“She was an amazing little girl,” her father said. “She lived life to the fullest. She didn’t do anything halfway. If she was going to do something for you, it was going to be bigger and better than the last thing she did for you.
“She could light up a room with her presence – and destroy it at the same time, with a mess of toys and clothes. She was a pistol.”
In the photo: Jessica with her brother, Aaron.