On Christmas Day, Robert Conboy was full of energy, happily washing dishes.

The active 13-year-old was with his twin, Zackary, sister Bryanna and his dad, Paul Conboy, volunteering at the Community Christmas Breakfast hosted at the Paris Senior Center by the Just As I Am Cowboy Church.

As his sister served attendees and his dad and brother ran the serving line, Robert was all smiles as he washed dishes, doing his part in the community outreach of the church.

“It was just a morning to be happy…happy to be around our church members and happy to be helping,” Robert said.

The family then went home and celebrated Christmas. All was well and good.

Less than a week later, on Dec. 30, Robert's life was hanging in the balance. His heart started failing him, leading to a chain of events that resulted in a heart transplant in St. Louis about a week later.

“I woke up early. I don't remember what time, but it was early. I told Dad that I was having trouble breathing,” Robert said last week as he was sipping on a vanilla milkshake. “Dad told grandma he was taking me to the hospital.”

Said Paul: “I took him to the hospital in Mexico.”

Paul said that while they were at SSM's St. Mary's – Audrain Hospital, it was clear from the outset that Robert's condition as grave.

“They could not get an IV started because he as so dehydrated,” Paul said. “We were there for about an hour when they sent for a pediatric nurse from upstairs. Turns out she was the same nurse who was on duty when Robert was born. She said that the hospital did not have the necessary equipment to handle someone in Robert's condition.”

He was quickly taken by ambulance to the University of Missouri's Women's and Children's Hospital on Columbia.

Doctors in Columbia pulled Paul aside after an exam of Robert, which included a chest X-ray. Robert's heart, they said, was failing. He needed to be transferred immediately to St. Louis Children's Hospital.

“We were in Columbia for about an hour when the doctors came out and told me that it was his heart, for sure,” he said.

A medical helicopter with a pediatric cardiac team was dispatch to Columbia to transport the now gravely ill Robert to St. Louis.

“They brought the whole staff from St. Louis. The doctors in Columbia told me his life was in danger and that he might not survive the flight,” Paul said.

It took doctors 90 minutes to transport Robert to the hospital in St. Louis, while his dad raced on Interstate 70 for nearly two-and-a-half hours.

The separation from Robert during the trip to St. Louis was numbing, Paul said.

“Oh, you'd better know it, that seemed forever,” he said of the trip to St. Louis.

At St. Louis Children's Hospital, Robert was on a heart pump on Jan. 1 while Robert was placed at the top of the heart transplant list.

For Robert's family, the tough news about his heart was compounded because his mother, Melissa Perry, died in early January 2018 following a 12-year battle with congestive heart failure, which included a heart transplant on Dec. 31, 2016.
Robert thought of his mother in his hospital bed at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

As he gained awareness of his surroundings, Paul knew that his condition was dire.

“I did not know exactly what was going on but I knew the pump was keeping me alive,” he said. “I knew I was dying.”

Paul said that his son asked him simply, “Am I going to die?”

“I told him pretty much what they told me. It was tough but we had the conversation,” Paul said. “It's tough to explain but my children know that I do not hide anything from him. I tell then what I know.”

Paul told Robert that it was just like his mother's heart disease, only worse because it affected both chambers of his heart.

“I told him it was a lot further along than his Mom's,” Paul said.

For his part, Robert said simply, “I was scared.”

Melissa was hospitalized over Christmas weekend of 2017 with double bacterial pneumonia. She passed away one week later.

The memory of his mother's disease weighed heavily on Robert.

His mother's battle with heart disease began with the birth of Robert and Zackary. Following the birth of the twins, she experienced severe fatigue and shortness of breath. After about three months, she was diagnosed with postpartum cardiomyopathy, a rare condition that affects a small percentage of pregnant women.

According to doctors at Johns Hopkins University, most women recover within a few days to three months. A rare few do not recover. Perry was among that group.

For 11 years, her failing heart affected everything. She had trouble walking long distances, she had little stamina for her children, humid weather affected her ability to breathe.

When Melissa was ill, doctors did not check for genetic markers. However, with Robert's conditions, both Bryanna and Zack were tested. Bryanna has the condition while Zack does not.
“Bryanna's has been caught very early and can be treated with medication,” Paul said.

Paul said that from the beginning of Robert's ordeal, Pastor Steve Miller and his wife, Janis, and the congregation of the church, who is located about five miles south of Paris, provided support, from prayers to hospital visits to helping with transportation.

“There is no doubt God has been with us,” Paul said.

Meanwhile, support from the community was overwhelming, he said. Dozens of people posted updates on Facebook requesting prayers for Robert, while flooding his room with well-wishes.

On Jan. 9, doctors told Robert that a heart was available. They started prepping him for surgery.

“At first, I was in shock and then it hit me…this is actually happening,” Robert said. “I had a flashback of my mom going through this. I was happy and then I started telling everybody.”

It is not lost on Paul that someone's death was giving Robert an opportunity to live.

“It was the perfect heart. Right blood type and everything you need,” he said.

Robert spent nearly 11 hours in surgery while doctors replaced his heart.

Those were long hours for Robert.

“I had all the church family pretty much there…Pastor Steve, Janis, and so many others…we all spent the time while he was in surgery praying…it was a long, long time.”

Robert says the support from the community has been overwhelming as has the support his employer of 19 years, A.B. Chance Industries in Centralia.

He is also grateful for health insurance, which has covered nearly all the $1 million-plus hospital bill. Robert does face a $67,000 bill for the emergency helicopter transportation, which falls outside normal health insurance policies.

“We are hoping to work something out on the bill,” he said.

Meanwhile, only one month after his heart transplant, Robert is doing well. He wears a surgical mask when he leaves home, and his energy is easily drained – and he faces months of rehabilitation.

But life is getting back to normal as his school work will continue. The Paris RII School District will provide Robert with in-home instruction for the balance of this school year.
And that evokes mixed emotions for Robert.

“It's good that I have something to do,' he said. “The bad news, it is back to school.”