Sunday September 21st the boos rained down on Charles Tillman. An unnecessary roughness penalty on the Bears cornerback on third down, in overtime, allowed Tampa Bay to keep their drive alive and kick the game winning field goal, handing the Bears a loss in the home opener. What was Tillman thinking? He wasn't. Where was his head? Forty miles north where his daughter Tiana was fighting to stay alive.
It was May 20th, Charles Tillman was taking part in voluntary workouts with his teammates at Halas Hall in Organized Team Activities otherwise known as OTA's. All was good in the young player's life. His family was growing, three year old Talia Tillman was enjoying her new baby sister. Tillman and his wife Jackie went through the typical routine of taking the baby to the doctor the day before for her three month immunizations. Everything was normal ... except for the wheezing.
After barely breaking a sweat on the Halas Hall practice field, Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith pulled Tillman aside and told him to go home. There was an emergency, it was his daughter Tiana. By the time Tillman arrived home Doctors at Lake Forest Hospital were in touch with Children's Memorial Hospital Physicians, Tiana Tillman was critical. "Look your daughter, she could possibly die tonight, this is pretty serious, whoever you need to call you need to get them down here right now." The six foot one inch football player lost it. Reality set in. "This could be my last moment with her."
Tiana Tillman's heart beat faster and faster trying to pump enough blood into her little body. A body that would not respond to medications. Diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy, the infant girl would need a heart transplant. But until another heart became available, doctors would need to keep her alive.
A heart-lung bypass machine was only a temporary solution, so Doctors at Children's Memorial Hospital appealed to the FDA to compassionately approve a Berlin Heart. The device sits outside the heart and does the pumping for the failed heart. "The Berlin Heart is not a long lasting solution so you have to transplant those babies" Cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Sunjay Kaushal explained. "We had to keep her alive until we could get the heart, and the Berlin Heart is an excellent device to do that." The process took a few days of paperwork, and ordering parts from around the world, before it could be shipped to Lincoln Park and baby Tiana.
Tillman and his family moved into an apartment nearby the hospital, his attendance at Bears practices was spotty but he bought a health club membership in the neighborhood to keep in shape. Mostly he just prayed. "If I could've given all my money back, to buy my daughter a heart, I would have...there was nothing I could do. I couldn't do anything but just pray, tell her I love her and it's okay." The 28 year old father of two didn't want to bury his child.
His older daughter Talia didn't quite understand the severity of the situation, and one afternoon while talking to her dad at the hospital, she started singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star over the telephone. The strong willed football player broke down. He passed the phone off to his wife, bolted out of the hospital room and ran down the stairs to the street for some air. Tears flowed freely and he fell into the arms of his former teammate Alfonso Boone, sobbing.
As Tillman's absences from Bears practices grew, so too did the speculation of his whereabouts. The internet was filled with rumors: a trade for Bret Favre? Arrested for drugs? Guns? Domestic Violence? The Tillmans kept their life private except for family and friends. He did not even consider using his celebrity to plead for an organ donation, knowing one family's tragedy would mean new life for his daughter. The football player brushed off the criticism, his wife Jackie did not. "I didn't like it, I felt like this was a really tough year for our family, some of the things that were said were inappropriate."
Tillman returned to training camp on days he dared to step away from his daughter's side. Team trainers had his cell phone and were on direct orders only to answer calls from 773 area codes -- the same area code as the hospital, just in a case a heart became available. A call earlier that month proved to be a false alarm, the donor heart was no good. But a few weeks later another call came, "We have a heart" the transplant team told him. Tillman didn't want to overreact in case it proved to be another false alarm, but it wasn't. The heart was flying back to Chicago on its way to the hospital. Jackie Tillman went back to bed, not believing what she heard. Charles coaxed her awake and the couple ran the mile to the hospital, unable to catch a cab.
Time was of the essence, upon removing a donor heart, surgeons had six hours to get it into Tiana Tillman. It is an orchestrated series of moves, timed out perfectly, until Mother Nature stepped in with severe thunderstorms over Chicago. "We were about twenty minutes from Midway Airport when they said the airport was closed." Dr. Kaushal recalled. The hospital's private jet was diverted to a private airstrip in Aurora Illinois, about 45 minutes away.
Hospital personnel called the state police and asked for an escort to downtown Chicago so the heart would make it in time. "She would have died" Dr. Kaushal said, "had she not received the heart transplant, she would have died. This was her only way of living."
With lights flashing and sirens blaring, the ambulance carrying Tiana Tillman's new heart arrived, within minutes it was inside her body and pumping life into the now 5 month old again. Without a single complication. Miraculously Tiana Tillman was sent home to recuperate less than one month later. "Her outlook is excellent" Dr. Kaushal says. "We were on our A game".
Charles and Jackie Tillman are so grateful for the sacrifice of another unknown family to give life to their daughter by donating their child's heart, that they have dedicated their own lives to helping others in need. The Tillmans' foundation teamed with the Children's Heart Foundation, Dr. Sunjay Kaushal was awarded a grant to continue his research into pediatric cardiomyopathy and the use of small molecules to prevent it from occuring and regenerative stem cells to treat it. Tillman and his wife Jackie were co-chairs at the Children's Heart Foundation February Gala "Hearts at Play" at the Field Museum.
Charles Tillman would like to meet the family that so generously gave of their child's heart while in a time a grief, but in due time. "Donate life, Give life" he pleaded. For now, he and his family are celebrating two milestones: Tiana's first birthday, and the upcoming birth of their third child, and first son.