At 20 years old, Bill Coon has not only survived two heart and kidney transplants but he is now a published author. Coon, a senior marketing communications and radio double major at Columbia, published his book, “Swim” on Sept. 16. He typed his book throughout the course of 70 days while he laid in a hospital bed, sedated and waited for organs to replace his deteriorating heart and kidney.
Now back in school, recovered and healthy, Coon is approaching the one-year anniversary of his second transplant procedure. Born with a congenital heart defect, Coon’s first hear transplant took place when he was an infant.
“I figured [writing the book] would help people who are ill,” Coon said about his decision to write his memoir. “I just wanted them to know they are not alone.”
A week and a half before Coon started writing his book he went to a concert and heard the song “Swim” by Jack’s Mannequin, who opened for The Fray during their summer 2009 tour.
“I went to that concert that night simply because I needed to feel normal,” Coon said. “I was feeling sick, but I had to do something normal.”
The empowering lyrics resonated deeply with Coon. “Swim” became the theme song of his hospital stay and recovery. It became a driving force in his survival and his book’s title.
By the time his 70-day hospital stay was completed, he had listened to “Swim” 156 times according to his iTunes playlist count.
George Zarr, radio lecturer at Columbia who had Coon in several of his classes in 2008, including Writing for Radio and Intro to Radio, was surprised when he learned about Coon’s condition.
“It was never like he was ill or lethargic,” Zarr said.
He added he always thought Coon was an upstanding person and a hardworking student.
“I’m glad I had him in my writing class,” Zarr said.
Stephanie Polcyn, assistant promotions and road crew manager and internship coordinator, was Coon’s internship supervisor at WTMX “The Mix” radio station in Chicago, where he interned last year.
“The interns are the face of the station,” Polcyn said. “We look for people who are very outgoing and able to interact with listeners. Bill was exactly that. He always had a smile on his face and he was a very hard worker.
When Coon’s condition worsened, it became difficult for him to breathe.
Polcyn said that was when people at the radio station started to take notice.
“He told us midway through his internship he was going to be readmitted to the hospital,” Polcyn said. “Until then, we really had no idea.”
He was diagnosed with end-stage heart and kidney failure from a lifetime of taking medication for his transplanted heart. Coon was admitted to the hospital the first week of June 2009 and began writing his book on July 5, 2009. Each entry took between 30 minutes to an hour to write.
His first entry reads, “Today I thought I was going to die. In fact, I was certain. I awoke feeling so weak and depleted of youth, it took me nearly an hour and a half to muster the strength to put on
Writing his memoir became a mission not only to help all the people who would read about his ordeal in the future but for his own survival.
“I had to get it done, I told myself I’m going to live and this is going to help people,” Coon said. “I would get mad at myself whenever I didn’t journal.”
Coon skipped writing six days out of 70. Even when his vision blurred from the medication he took and exhaustion enveloped his body, he said he pushed himself to write.
“It was very much a stream of consciousness when I wrote,” Coon said.
In his book, he describes the anger he felt toward his doctors who eventually became his family, as well as his anxiety, disgust and fears. He wrote about becoming addicted to his medication in the hospital and how he took advantage of the people around him. He said he didn’t censor himself because all of it was for survival. And he said all of it needed to be out in the open.
“I decided to write everything because I thought I had to have the truth on the pages,” Coon said. “What I’m thinking, people inevitably have to be thinking if they’re sick or in the hospital.”
In the four weeks the book has been available, Coon has received letters from cancer patients who tell him how his book influenced their lives.
“I’ve had a patient who was just diagnosed with rectal cancer write me and tell me everything in this book is literally what he’s thinking, and it made him feel better that he’s not alone,” Coon said.
One person who had a heart transplant two years ago, wrote Coon to tell him he had finally gotten resolution. Coon said the book helped this particular person see he wasn’t the only one having “dark thoughts.”
To date, Coon has received 12 letters from people who have been helped by his book. He said he hopes that number will continue to grow.
In the end, Coon said his ordeal taught him happiness is the key to life. He feels a sense of peace these days, and he finds joy simply in riding Chicago Transit Authority to class.
“Money is just so unimportant in the grand scheme of things,” Coon said. “There’s a lot more to life at the end of the day than success and riches. Now I just live every second. Absorb everything that’s around you and don’t let anything get to you. In the end, it’s all just going to work out.”
Coon found himself face to face with death many times during his hospital stay. Eventually, he said he conquered his fear of dying.
Now that his book is published, Coon said it is a relief he no longer has to look at semi-colons and analyze comma placement. But he said his work is far from done.
He is currently sending free copies of his memoir to charities and organizations. He said he hopes more people will read “Swim” and spread the word.
“It’s not done until I literally have hundreds of people telling me it helped them,” Coon said. “I won’t feel like it’s done until some random person in Utah, through word of mouth, gets a copy of the book, goes on my website and tells me what the book means to [him or her] and then that helps him or her get a transplant.”
Columbia’s Marketing Department sent Coon to Washington, D.C. on Oct. 14 to accept an award from the Public Relations Student Society of America together with the National Organ Donation Awareness Campaign. Coon will accept an award in D.C. for his involvement with the NODAC campaign he helped with last spring in addition to publishing his book.
To purchase a copy of “Swim,” visit Amazon.com or BillCoonBooks.com.