For Connie Koch, turning 40 meant a time for reflection.
Though she had endured her share of ups and downs and then some throughout her four decades, she decided to mark the occasion with an attitude of gratitude.
As her March 12 birthday approached, she decided to celebrate, not by pampering herself with something special, but by embarking on 40 days of random acts of kindness.
After sending out an e-mail telling friends and family her plan, she received a suggestion from a parent of one of her son Noah’s classmates at Coy Elementary School in Oregon.
“She suggested I do something for Oscar Sauceda, another Coy student who had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia,” Connie said.
She really didn’t know much about the young student – Noah had just recently transferred to Coy, so she did a little digging.
“I learned that Oscar wanted something orange – his favorite color,” Connie said. “Then I remembered Noah had made two fleece blankets in Bible school.
“The blanket was orange with white letters that said, `Jesus loves me’ – in Spanish,” she recalled. “It was then I knew I somehow was meant to meet Oscar and his family.”
Since then, Connie has become friends with Oscar’s mother, Jessica Villegas. She is also one of “Oscar’s Angels,” a small group of friends and supporters who are mobilizing to help the Villegas family during Oscar’s upcoming bone marrow transplant and subsequent recovery.
When she talks about Oscar, the conversation takes on an urgent tone as she rattles off the things that Oscar’s Angels can do to help the family through this crisis.
It is her own ongoing health problems that make it so important for Connie to be involved with efforts to help Oscar and his family, she said.
“I know what they’re going through,” she said. “Dealing with the doctors, insurance - it’s overwhelming. It’s not easy to keep the faith.”
She speaks from experience. In December 2000, after a complicated delivery, her son was born by Caesarian section.
Just a week later, life changed drastically for the single mother.
Sitting in the pediatrician’s office for baby Noah’s first visit, the doctor discussed the injection she would be giving the newborn.
“She told me about the shot and asked me if I was squeamish,” Connie said. “I told them I could handle it.”
As the doctor gave the injection, Koch’s arm went numb – something she had experienced on the drive to the pediatrician’s office.
“I was holding the baby, and as he began to slip, the doctor asked me what I was doing,” she said. “I couldn’t answer.”
The doctor, recognizing possible stroke symptoms, called 9-1-1. “In retrospect, I was lucky - I was in the best place I could have been,” Connie said, adding that the life squad arrived quickly.
“They were wonderful,” she said. “I believe that Mark Mullin and Tom Fuller from Station 1 in Oregon saved my life.”
In the emergency room at St. Vincent Medical Center, doctors tried to stabilize the new mom, who was frightened and worried about her baby. Then late in the afternoon, another complication - Connie suffered a heart attack.
“Apparently a blood clot had become mobile during or after Noah’s birth,” she said.
Doctors gave her a not-so-rosy prognosis. “That was a Monday and by the end of the week, my speech had pretty much returned,” she said. “I was lucky in that regard.”
She has since been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy and a dangerous arrhythmia, which required that she have a defibrillator implanted. The stroke also left her with some intermittent weakness on her left side, she said.
Managing her condition requires frequent trips to the Cleveland Clinic to see a roster of specialists. She has also been told that she’ll likely eventually need a heart transplant.
Despite it all, Connie says she feels blessed. “I have this special little boy – I can’t even imagine my life without him,” she said.
“So I know how Jessica feels about Oscar,” she said. “Doing what I can for them makes me feel good, and it sets a good example for Noah.”
“And there’s so much we can do,” she said.
Oscar’s Angels are looking for donations of frozen or non-perishable foods to sustain the Villegas family while Jessica and Oscar are at the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, where Oscar will receive the transplant July 25.
They are seeking donations of long-distance calling cards, gas cards, grocery store gift cards and assorted other items to help ready the home before Oscar returns.
“The community of Oregon is really stepping up,” she said, adding that before Jessica and Oscar left for Cleveland, Eternity of Memories donated a family photo session, Applebee's treated the Villegas family to dinner, and Oscar's mom got a make-over from Future Wave salon.
Oscar’s Angels are also planning to observe Friday, Saturday and Sunday as “Oregon for Oscar” days to raise money for the Villegas family. Fund-raising events are being planned all around the city, including cash and food collection drives, a cookout and car washes.
On July 25, the scheduled day of the transplant, a prayer vigil will be held at Pearson Park.
To learn more about the events planned, make a donation or learn more, call 419-693-1774.
In addition, cash donations may be made to “Oscar’s Fund” at any Huntingdon bank, including the Starr & Main Branch in East Toledo; at 3351 Navarre Ave. in Oregon (in front of Kroger); and at 2550 Woodville Rd., Northwood, in front of the Great Eastern Shopping Center.