Chicago Greek Bill Coon is an author, sought-after speaker, and now a podcaster. Meet this double transplant recipient who inspires people every single day.
Who’s Bill Coon?
Bill Coon, 28, has endured more than many of us would in a lifetime. In fact, he’s even beaten death twice. This double transplant recipient is a true survivor. Since then, he’s used his story to inspire others. He’s an author, a sought-after speaker, and now a podcaster. He’s also a Chicago Greek!
Let’s meet him!
Born and raised in suburban Lake Zurich, Bill is the son of William, Jr. and Ann Gianaras Coon. He called his upbringing with his sister Carissa and brother Gus, “very Greek”. His extended family is very close-knit.
Bill was born with Hypoplastic Left Ventricle Syndrome – the left side of his heart was severely underdeveloped. A heart transplant was imperative, as his life expectancy was just 21 days. He chronicled his story in the 2010 memoir, Swim. “Just as they were about to pull the plug,” as his other organs would fail, he received a new heart — the 8th infant in the nation to receive a heart transplant and the 4th in the Midwest. He reflected on this.
“They literally saved me at the last second. I had just hours to live.”
He said he hadn’t had a “single complication” his entire life. He did go to doctors to be checked out every six months or so, but it wasn’t a significant part of his life.
“My life was filled with years of easygoing, good, clean fun.”
His heart gives out
Fast forward to the age of 20, and he began a roller coaster ride of health issues, doctor visits, and hospital stays.
“There’s a 25% chance a heart could give out and then another transplant is needed. I exceeded the expectancy. The doctors were all amazed that I had that heart for 20 years.”
While a student at Columbia College, pursuing a degree in radio broadcasting, Bill began experiencing complications. He was heading back to his dorm in late 2008, when he suddenly experienced a sharp pain in his lower abdomen. He lost his breath and had to stop. He started walking again, but the pain returned. He shrugged it off. The pain went away but returned in March, and was enough to disrupt his life. He couldn’t even walk down the street. By late May, he couldn’t walk more than 20 steps without needing to stop. A few times, he nearly blacked out. It wasn’t until one day in June, at home with his family, that Bill experienced a tingling sensation in his swelling feet. By early morning, the swelling reached his knees. It was then that he finally agreed to go to the hospital. He never imagined this had anything to do with his heart, since he’d had no chest pains. Bill was in heart failure. Later he learned that nerve endings were cut during his surgery, and therefore, the pain was manifesting itself in other parts of his body.
Beginning in June 2009, Bill would have multiple, lengthy hospital stays. He’d change doctors and hospitals. His condition continued to decline. He actively participated in his own care.
He began to journal.
“There were a few times I thought I wasn’t going to make it, but I always believed I would. That’s why I continued journaling. I felt like I had to write down my feelings, to get it out, as I had no outlet to complain. Afterward, I felt incredible and kept going. Sometime between day 7 and 14, I had an epiphany that I could potentially inspire another person to keep fighting, teach them to get through a mental battle if they could hang on. If I was able to survive, they could. It was my drive to continue to journal.”
Ultimately, Bill needed a new heart — and a new kidney. In October 2009, he received a new heart, and shortly thereafter, a kidney. Today, he enjoys “stellar health”. As of December 2016, his cardiologist told him that his heart was in better shape than that of people with their “native” heart. His kidney is going strong as well.
Time to Swim
A song called ‘Swim’ took on great significance. With its inspiring lyrics, Bill adopted it as his personal motto. The song, by pop/punk rock band Jack’s Mannequin, has a story behind it.
“The singer of the band was hospitalized with advanced stage Leukemia. The lyrics talk about the people around him who helped him get through. It’s about his life. It teaches you what you have to do to survive mentally — ‘swim for your sister, lovers, friends’. It helps you think and to focus to get through the dark moments. I heard this song a week before I started writing the book. Everything happens for a reason.”
In 2010, he published Swim: A Memoir of Survival, a compilation of short stories and journal entries written throughout his journey.
“It’s all about the mental battle. Physically you have to rely on your physicians. Count on them, technology, and drugs to fight the physical battle. Understand, you may lose it, but the mental battle is all you. Deep down you must believe you’re going to make it. You have the willpower. Know what you’re fighting for. It will give you the extra edge and time for drugs to kick in, take effect and potentially save your life.”
The book details, in nitty-gritty detail, the trials and tribulations of his journey from heart failure to transplants; of small victories, setbacks, and ultimately, crossing the finish line. It’s a no-holds-barred account of an illness, complete with raw emotions. The young man describes through eloquent prose, his inner battle through anger, pain, setback, and struggle — to hope. It’s the story of how Bill Coon learned to “swim.”
Bill set out to help others fight through their health issues.
“I realize, in all humbleness, that someone had to die for me to live. I am blessed. I’m very grateful. Now, it’s for me to use what I have learned to help someone else learn to find hope, strength — the will — and to teach them to ‘swim’.”
The book was very well-received from those suffering illness, as well as from the medical community and caretakers. Through his website and sharing his story, he became an advocate for organ donation, as well as a sought-after speaker. Since then, Bill’s traveled the U.S. speaking at high schools, colleges, medical conferences, and corporations. He shares his story and encourages others to keep going. He continues to write. He recently published a short story called, “Imagination”, and is working more than one novel. He’s also just launched an exciting new project.
‘People You Should Know’
This summer, Bill debuted his brand new podcast, “People You Should Know”. It’s an idea that sparked during his travels.
“People share their stories with me. I thought it would be cool to create something where they can use their voice (or amplify their voice) to raise awareness and be heard. The podcast focuses on people who are striving to make a difference in the world or in their community through charitable work, art, inventions, or through sharing their stories.”
‘People You Should Know’ is uplifting.
“It’s meant to be a place where people can come to feel good. PYSK is meant to be a place for upbeat stories that bring people together. We share unique stories from fascinating people on a wide array of topics.”
The podcast, which has already featured 5 individuals, including Erin Gianaras, a 27 year-old stroke survivor; and Janey Lowes, who started an organization that provides free veterinary care to animals in need on the island of Sri Lanka. The podcast has been well-received, and season 2 is in the works.
“The feedback has been awesome. In a month’s time, it has a strong following of subscribers who are very encouraging. It’s been fun connecting with so many inspiring and unique people. Actually, one of my main goals was to expose the audience to rare illnesses. Already, one listener reached out to say that one of the episodes (week 1 with Megan King, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Advocate) helped the listener find the correct diagnoses for her ailments. I was stunned, yet so satisfied that the podcast achieved one of my hopes so quickly.”
Give a listen
Check out ‘People You Should Know’. Sign up to get new emails regarding new episodes, suggest a guest, and learn more about Bill Coon.