A heart transplant when she was 16 left Olivia Eisenhauer with a scar on her chest below her neck. She uses the adversity she has faced in her life to inspire others. (Photo by Marlee Smith/Cronkite News)
PHOENIX – Olivia Eisenhauer lay on the floor of the volleyball court, strangers pressing paddles against her chest and the color draining from her face.
An eighth-grade student, she was walking off the court of a summer volleyball competition in Shawnee, Kansas, when she suddenly collapsed. In those first moments, her parents thought Olivia might have just overdone it.
“We thought it might be dehydration or something. It’s the middle of summer,” said Rod Eisenhauer, Olivia’s father. “She wouldn’t come to, so immediately it became more of a serious situation.”
They had no way of knowing that Olivia’s life would never again be the same.
Around the same time, more than 600 miles away in Greeley, Colorado, Connor Gillmore was a high school kid who was discovering his passion.
He had always liked to tinker, whether it was with Legos or car parts. He especially liked to fix up four-wheelers and take them up into the mountains near his house.
“He was more about the eight weeks prior to the trip, getting the ‘crawler’ ready, than the four or five hours that they were up in the mountains and off-roading,” his father, Travis, said. “His goal was to beat the crap out of it while he was up there and then bring it back down and work on and make it better. It was all about more the journey than the end game.”
Four years later – on Dec. 3, 2018 – Conor and Olivia would become inextricably linked.
That’s the day Olivia, 16, received a new heart. It belonged to Connor, who at 22 years old had suffered severe injuries from a car accident.
As fate would have it – and fate reared its head in the strangest of ways with these two – Olivia was at Children’s Mercy Hospital Kansas in Kansas City for a routine check-up when she learned that after a long wait, a heart was available to her.
“It was interesting because Olivia was in the hospital room when the doctors came in, and Jodi had just gone down to the hospital cafeteria,” Rod said about his wife. “I had gone home to shower and then went to my office to pick something up. Olivia was alone in the room when the doctors actually came in and told her that they had a donor. … The doctor told us later that he actually had four heart offers within 24 hours. We had waited for two years, then all of a sudden we had four heart offers.”
Two years, then suddenly four donors. Not only that, Olivia later learned that many of Connor’s family members were fans of Kansas State, a rival of her beloved Kansas Jayhawks. They loved sports almost as much as she did.
“She’s not our child, yet I view her a little bit as being part of our family,” Travis said. “She’s got part of us with her. And she always will.”
And she will always have the scar. It snakes up her chest and stops just below her neck. She wears it as a kind of badge of honor, despite once being told she shouldn’t pursue broadcast journalism because of it. Now 18 and a student at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Olivia is more than ever determined to make it in an industry that has had little room for imperfections when it comes to women.
“Anyone who is an authority figure who tries to limit a person because of his or her scars needs a crash course in humanity,” said Kim Jones, an NFL Network reporter. “All of us have scars. Some of ours are just more visible.”
Jones would know. In 2018 while covering a Washington Football Team practice, she suffered an aortic dissection. Doctors were able to save her life, but in the process created a noticeable scar.
“I remember when I was in the hospital and met one of my surgeons (Dr. Alan Speir) for the first time. He said, ‘I know what you do for a living. I’m sorry about the scars,’” Jones said. “At that point, I hadn’t seen my scars yet. But I told him: ‘Don’t apologize. My scars are who I am now.’
“Over the last two-plus years, strangers have thanked me for not being afraid to show my scars. So many other people have them, too.”
Olivia’s heart had stopped beating that day on the volleyball court at Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee. Just 12, she had suffered a significant cardiac arrest.
Her parents rushed to her side and began performing CPR. For several long minutes, they pressed their hands against her chest with no success. As the situation grew bleaker with each tick of the clock, the Eisenhauers’ miracle appeared in the form of a medical device.
“Somebody found and yelled for a defibrillator,” Jodi Eisenhauer said. “They came running over and said, ‘We’ve got to use this defibrillator now.’ She was gray. She was gray. We later found out that we had seconds.”
The AED device sent electricity pulsing through her heart. She was alive.
An ambulance arrived and Olivia was rushed to Overland Park Regional Medical Center just outside of Kansas City. Jodi can vividly recall the ride, especially the clatter and beeping of medical devices from the back of the ambulance.
“I’ve never heard sounds like that in the back of that truck,” she said. “I think that was the hardest of all of it.”
Olivia was placed in a medically induced coma for two and a half days as doctors tried to stabilize her. When she woke up with a breathing tube down her throat, she had a moment of sheer panic.
“I remember just waking up … they were starting to take me out of a coma and just being like ‘What is going on?’,” Olivia said. “I asked for a whiteboard and a pen to start writing. … That was just like sheer panic. I had nurses holding me down, but then my mom saying, ‘You can’t speak right now’.”
Over the next 11 days in the hospital, Olivia’s condition improved, but doctors still didn’t know what was wrong with her. They wouldn’t figure it out for more than two years, even after Olivia had a second cardiac episode at age 14.
Finally, Olivia’s parents took her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a five-hour cardiac catheterization to view her heart and its activity level. Olivia was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, a condition that affects the oxygen levels and viability of her heart.
“The top half of my heart was perfectly fine, but the bottom half of the muscle was incredibly tense, and I needed double the oxygen for it,” Olivia explained. “I could barely walk up steps without borderline passing out because I would just get winded.”
The family was told that the only choice was a heart transplant and they knew it could be a long time before one could be found. While they waited, Olivia adjusted to a dramatically different kind of life.
“I was going from playing volleyball at least two hours a day, five out of seven days a week, to being told, ‘That really can kill you,’” she said. “‘Your life could end if you step on the volleyball court again.’”
Knowing that she was unlikely to ever pursue a career in sports, Olivia began thinking about sports journalism instead.
“I really started to watch sports and the X’s and O’s,” Olivia said. “I couldn’t play, and that was incredibly difficult. It was just a total lifestyle change. In hindsight, I’m thankful for that side of it because like the saying, one door closes, another opens.”
It took almost two years to find the perfect heart and 10 hours to place it in her chest. When Olivia emerged, she had a perfect, beating heart and the knowledge that someone had to lose a life in order for her to live one.
Jennifer and Travis Gillmore, along with their two youngest sons, had made a trip to Chicago to celebrate her birthday. They were looking forward to catching up with family and old friends, and they planned to make time for a collegiate men’s basketball game in Milwaukee between Marquette and Kansas State, Jennifer’s and Travis’ alma maters, respectively.
Then Jennifer and Travis got a call that their oldest son, Connor, who had stayed behind in Colorado, had been in a car accident.
“They basically said that he’d come in unresponsive, which I’m not really sure what that means exactly, but you know it’s serious,” Travis said.
The Gillmores immediately booked a flight back to Colorado and headed to the airport in the middle of a winter storm. Both Travis and Jennifer recall one distinct moment from that drive.
“One of the things we vividly remember is that I had been talking to a doctor, I have no idea who he is, in the middle of a storm (and) construction, traffic, hearing these words, ‘Your son has suffered non-survival injuries,’” Travis said.
They learned that Connor’s vehicle had flipped 180 degrees less than a mile from the family’s home. Authorities arrived on the scene almost immediately and found he had experienced a full displacement of the skull with massive internal blood hemorrhaging. He was not wearing his seatbelt.
When the family arrived at North Colorado Medical Center late that night, they were met by a slew of friends and relatives who had heard the news. They waited for two days while the medical team administered tests searching for any sign of life. They couldn’t find one. Connor was declared brain dead.
At first, the family did not want to discuss organ donation.
“At the hospital, I think that night they mentioned organ donation and they had not even declared him brain dead or anything like that, but I couldn’t even speak about that,” Jennifer said.
But as time passed and Connor’s condition failed to improve, the Gillmore family began to reconsider. To their surprise, they learned that Connor had already registered as a donor based on information on his driver’s license.
“I’ve come to the conclusion (remembering) that Connor was involved in another rollover accident while he was four-wheeling,” Jennifer said. “It resulted in 22 stitches in his forehead. He had a classmate who was a live organ donor to somebody who had worked at their school, and she had donated a kidney at the age of 21. That happened right around the time of his first rollover. I honestly think that’s what made him check the box because of his friend.”
The decision had been made. Jennifer and Travis wheeled Connor into surgery, kissed his forehead and said their final goodbyes.
Connor, they said, was the kind of person who never hesitated to help someone else. This time he would be doing more — he would be saving the life of someone he had never even met.
Due to restrictions designed to protect the families of transplant victims and transplant givers, the Gillmore and Eisenhauer families knew nothing about each other.
“You have to wait until a year out from your transplant to have any communication,” Olivia said. “I had no idea where my heart came from, no clue about anything.”
The Gillmore family had received letters about the other organs Connor donated, but the “letter we always hoped for was from the heart recipient. We knew the ages. We knew it was going to a 16-year-old girl in Kansas City.”
After the one-year waiting period, the Gillmore and Eisenhauer families began to connect. They wrote letters and emails and set up a couple of video chats.
They were able to meet for the first time last August and again in early 2021 when Travis and Jennifer traveled to Arizona. They brought a stethoscope to listen to their son’s heart as it beat in Olivia’s chest.
— Kim Jones, NFL Network
Even before the operation, Olivia had decided she wanted to study journalism at ASU. She was so sure that when she was scheduled to take a tour of the campus, she pulled her name off the heart transplant list – to qualify, a potential recipient needs to be within two hours of the hospital – so she could make the trip.
There have been those who have tried to dissuade her. While attending a journalism conference in San Francisco, she was told that her scar would be too distracting to audiences and she would have a hard time finding a job on air.
Olivia was not phased, which came as no surprise to her younger sister, Millie Eisenhauer, who said Olivia has been a huge influence on the way she approaches her own life.
“This whole experience is more like ‘you only live once’ and I need to go out and live my life,” Millie said. “Follow my dreams. I really feel like that’s what pushed her to go to Arizona State. I think maybe if this experience didn’t happen, she would have played it safe.”
As for Olivia, she said a day never goes by that she doesn’t think about Connor and the Gillmore family.
“I hope they’re seeing this and they know that I’m putting the heart to good use,” Olivia said. “They know that they’re not like not putting it to waste, but that I’m carrying out a life that they would have wanted their son to have.”
“She’s really using Connor’s heart to show them, ‘I’m doing this for a reason.’
“Like he’s given me this gift.”