By Murray Evans
OKLAHOMA CITY (April 11, 2013) – Neil Hilton and Tommy Riley grew up not far from each other in Liverpool, England, but didn’t connect until both had arrived in Oklahoma to play college soccer.
They’re part of a small but tight-knit group of Liverpool natives in Oklahoma who, despite their connection with rival local colleges, have developed a tight bond because, as Riley says, it’s good to know people who understand what “home” is to you, even when home is thousands of miles and an ocean away.
So, at a time when Riley – the women’s soccer coach at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee – needs help dealing with a serious heart issue involving his infant daughter, Olivia, his Liverpool friends in Oklahoma are there to support him.
“We’re all one big family, really,” said Hilton, a former Oklahoma Christian University player who’s now an assistant women’s soccer coach at OC. “Tommy and his family are really nice people and we just want to help them any way we can.”
Olivia “is a fighter. It makes you appreciate life a lot more,” Hilton said.
Hilton and Scott Parkinson, a player at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma who’s also the head boys soccer coach at Chickasha High School, decided they wanted to do more than just provide emotional support. In an effort to raise funds to help offset the costs associated with Olivia’s treatment, Hilton and Parkinson plan to run April 28 in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. They are asking for donations and have raised more than $5,000 to this point.
As the date of the marathon draws closer, Hilton hopes that amount will continue to grow. A running tally of the donations is being kept on a website Hilton created, http://www.donationto.com/Babyolivia .
“It’s really unbelievable what Neil and Scott are doing for us,” Riley said. “We are truly blessed to have some fantastic friends to reach out to us to help with medical costs. My wife and I could never thank them enough.”
Riley played at Oklahoma City University in the 1990s. In 2007, Hilton’s brother, Stuart, began playing for the Stars. Neil Hilton arrived at Oklahoma Christian in 2008 and became one of the Eagles’ best players, tying the single-season school record for assists as a senior in 2011. Parkinson arrived at USAO in 2010.
“We all just became really close friends,” Neil Hilton said.
OCU, OC, USAO and St. Gregory’s are longtime rivals, all playing under the Sooner Athletic Conference banner until the 2012-13 academic year, when OC began the NCAA Division II membership process and left the SAC. But some things are more important than wins and losses and rivalries.
Olivia was born last year with a heart condition known as tetralogy of Fallot. The condition, which is caused by a combination of four heart defects, occurs in about five of every 10,000 babies, according to the National Institutes of Health. In infants with tetralogy of Fallot, not enough blood is able to reach the lungs to gather oxygen, which means that oxygen-poor blood flows through the body and the skin is blue-tinged.
According to the Mayo Clinic, infants who are diagnosed early and receive appropriate treatment can live mostly normal lives, although they will need to receive regular medical care and likely will have exercise restrictions.
At just six months old, Olivia underwent surgery for her condition at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
“You’re talking about surgery on something that is about the size of a quarter,” Riley said. “They had to open her pulmonary artery. The valve on there didn’t close, so it allowed the blood to pull back into her heart. They widened the artery from six millimeters to eight millimeters, then put a valve on there that was big enough.”
Although Riley has health insurance, the ancillary costs of the procedure – such as he and his wife having to live away from home and pay for lodging and meals – quickly began to rise.
“I looked at a bill a couple of weeks ago,” Riley said. “The surgery part, just for that, the insurance contribution was $150,000 and that’s not including what I have to pay. That’s not including medicine, the hospital stay, heart monitors, x-rays, anesthesia.”
While dealing with his daughter’s health issues, Riley was in his first season as the women’s coach at St. Gregory’s and began the hard work of rebuilding that program. Hilton and Parkinson saw the hard work their friend was putting in, both at home and on the job, and felt compelled to help.
When they told Riley what they wanted to do, Riley was “shocked, honored and very grateful.”
“Neil and Scott are two of a lot of people who have helped us along the way,” Riley said. “It’s been an unbelievable response to a little girl a lot of people didn’t know. A lot of other people got involved. Prayer chains have gone around the world through Facebook. Even now thinking about it I get tears. We are blessed with the amount of support we actually had.
“There are not enough words to express how I feel or my gratitude to Neil and Scott. We will be there to support them, obviously, during the race.”
Hilton has run eight half-marathons, but never attempted to complete a full, 26.2-mile marathon. He’s been training, working toward a goal of about 18 miles in one stretch. He’s hopeful that, come race day, adrenaline and strong conditioning will carry him to the finish.
“I don’t care what my time is,” he said. “I just want to finish. I just want to say I’ve done one.”
Hinton wants to run to benefit Olivia, and he hopes someday, the little child who’s now not even a year old will be able to run as well. Riley said his research has shown that several famous people – including Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White – have had the same condition as his daughter.
“After surgery, her energy has been unbelievable,” Riley said. “Developmentally, she’s where she needs to be. She’s crawling around and full of energy. It’s a true blessing, a small miracle with what we’ve been through.
“As of now, we are not putting any limitations on her and we don’t intend to. You look out there and see (White), in the X Games, super fit, full of energy, and you know there’s hope out there.”