Ryan Connolly

Fighting for a Cure

Feb. 18, 2009

By Maura K. SullivanNotre Dame Sports Information

It was after midnight, but the ringing of the phone pierced the silence in the Connolly house, waking 15-year-old Ryan Connolly and his mother, Penny.

Penny, who had recently lost her husband Michael to lung cancer, picked up the receiver to find Michael’s surgeon, Dr. Leslie Kohman, on the other end.

“How would you like to raise a million dollars for lung cancer research?” Kohman asked.

And so began the Michael E. Connolly Endowment for Lung Cancer Research.

“One night, in a moment of insomnia, I thought, ‘Why don’t we really capture this passion that Ryan and Penny have about this issue and see if we can raise some substantial amounts of money for a lung cancer research endowment?’ It has been so many years and I’ve told the story so many times, I’m not sure if I called in the middle of the night or the next morning or the next afternoon. I don’t really remember the details, but I remember their excitement,'” said Kohman, one of the top thoracic surgeons in the world.

“For me, it’s not very often that the families approach me and say they want to do something really big. Families often want to do something, just not something this big. And the Connollys were really committed to this,” said Kohman.

Despite no history of smoking, Michael Connolly was diagnosed with lung cancer at the young age of 37 and succumbed to the disease just two years later in August of 2002. A star football and baseball player in high school, Connolly was a dedicated athlete and then became his son Ryan’s volunteer coach in baseball, football, and hockey.

“Sports were always the center of our relationship, 365 days a year. We were always doing something, always together,” said Ryan, a senior on the Notre Dame baseball team.

Ryan was only 15 years old when his father lost his battle with lung cancer.

“Ryan is a wonderful young man and he was a very impressive 15-year old when his dad was dying; he was very mature for his age. He really understood that sometimes you just come to the end of the road,” said Kohman.

The end of Michael’s road was the beginning of a long and difficult, but ultimately fulfilling, road for Ryan, Penny, and Dr. Kohman.

“It’s unfortunate that my dad is gone, but in the same sense, it’s a gift in a way, because it has given us the opportunity to do something incredibly special. It’s rough to lose him, but it’s been incredible that we get to honor him in such a way by doing such a great thing,” said Ryan.

Michael received treatment at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., during the final months of his life. It was at Upstate that Dr. Kohman and her staff fell in love with the Connollys and vice versa.

“It was very emotional for all of us when Michael died, because we all were very attached to the family and they were very empathetic and attractive. Ryan was such a great kid and his mother is very vivacious; they are really wonderful,” said Kohman.

It is not often that a physician retains such a close relationship with the family of one of her patients, but the relationship between Dr. Kohman and the Connollys is special. She is a major force with the work on the endowment and that professional relationship blossomed into a lasting friendship.

“Dr. Kohman is unbelievable. She’s just this remarkable woman and you would think that would be kind of intimidating, but she comes in with her short gray hair and this fuchsia lipstick. She’s so passionate about it, it’s unbelievable. Without her, I don’t think that we’d even be doing this,” said Ryan.

Dr. Kohman and the Connollys knew how important experimental research was to Michael’s treatment, so they wanted that to be the focus of the endowment and set their goal of raising a million dollars. They brought their plan to Upstate in 2004. “When we had our first meeting with the foundation people at Upstate, they looked at this mother and son from this small city in New York who said ‘We want to raise a million dollars,’ and doubted us,” said Ryan.

But Ryan, Penny and Dr. Kohman were determined to reach their goal. Upstate gave them five years to raise $500,000. The Connollys and the Board of Directors, whom Penny carefully selected, are responsible for all the groundwork fundraising efforts. After just three years of diligently collecting pledges and hosting golf tournaments and other fundraising events, they reached their goal.

The Connolly Endowment issued its first grant of $10,000, which was then matched by the Hendrick’s Fund at Upstate Medical University, to a group of researchers trying to determine if lung cancer patients who had surgery would also benefit from a cancer-inhibiting drug.

“The fact that we just demolished the goal in half the time that they gave us is pretty cool. It was probably one of the proudest moments of me and my mom’s life to be able to issue our first grant,” said Ryan.

Ryan and Penny also have a very close-knit relationship. Ryan is an only child and his father’s death brought him even closer to his mom.

“My mom is my best friend. When tragedy like that strikes, it could have gone either way. We could have separated greatly, but we definitely did not do that. We use each other to lean on. It is very tough on her that I am 10 hours away from home,” said Ryan.

But 10 hours southwest of Binghamton, N.Y., Ryan Connolly is making his mark on the Notre Dame campus.

A standout athlete in three sports in high school, Ryan chose to concentrate on baseball when Notre Dame offered him a scholarship. He has always dreamed of coming to Notre Dame, but he hit a bump in the road when he tore his labrum, the cartilage in his shoulder, early in his freshman season. The lifelong catcher spent months in rehab and then was forced to switch to the outfield to avoid irritating the injury.

“I honestly haven’t really come back. It’s been frustrating, but I think I’ve found different ways to impact the game and impact the team,” said Ryan.

Despite his frustrations, Ryan still approaches everything with a positive attitude. This attitude is what has brought him success in sports, with his dad’s foundation, and also in the classroom. The psychology and pre-professional studies double major eyes a future in the medical field, hopefully at Upstate Medical University.

“I live my life to make my dad proud, that’s why I wake up every day and do what I do and put in the effort that I put into everything. For the 15 years that he raised me, he made me into the man I am now and the father I’ll be someday,” said Ryan.