PENFIELD TWP. — At first glance, Dalton Conn might be considered just an average teenager.
The 14-year-old incoming Keystone High School freshman is slightly shy around girls. He wonders if he will be taller than his dad. And, he isn’t a big fan of smiling — the braces covering his teeth are the reason why he smiles with a closed mouth.
But underneath his T-shirt is a slightly-faded, 6-inch vertical scar that makes him stand out.
“Show her your scar,” Dalton’s father, Chris Conn, said. “You don’t remember that day. But I do.”
Dalton looked to his dad, lifted his shirt and quickly pulled it down.
“Yeah, here’s my scar,” Dalton said.
Holes in his heart
Dalton was born July 23, 2002, at what is now University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center. By all accounts, Dalton was a perfect and healthy baby boy.
“He appeared normal. Matter of fact, a bit on the big side from (his mom’s) gestational diabetes,” Chris said.
Preparing to bring his son home, Chris made sure all of the necessities were met. The infant carrier was secure, the diaper bag was packed and the house was ready to welcome a new baby.
“I had heard how it would be a love like nothing else, but I didn’t believe them,” Chris said holding back tears. “When I first held him, it was like no love I had ever felt before. He was truly a part of me.”
What Chris wasn’t prepared for was the news that Dalton’s heart was not properly beating.
“One of the doctors picked up on the heart murmur and that is how they discovered the problem,” Chris said.
Dalton’s parents could leave the hospital. Dalton could not.
“I wish I didn’t remember that day … it was tough,” Chris said as tears fell down his tanned cheeks.
Chris said he couldn’t help but sob after learning his son was born with a heart condition. Dalton was born with two holes in his heart — one being the size of a pencil eraser. The ventricular septal defect, known as VSD, is a hole in the wall separating the lower chambers of the heart. The only way doctors knew about Dalton’s hole was from the loud murmur heard through a stethoscope. Upon finding the first hole, a second hole was detected known as atrial septal defect, or ASD. It’s a defect in the septum between the heart’s two upper chambers.
“All I heard was they told me he had holes in his heart and it could possibly lead to congestive heart failure. I thought I was gonna lose him,” Chris said.
Eventually, doctors let Dalton go home.
“The doctor said, ‘Your son will go home with you today, but the condition needs to be corrected as quickly as possible,’” Chris said.
Being placed on paternal leave was a godsend for Chris. He spent the six weeks he was away from his job at the Grafton Correctional Institute, where he served as a corrections officer, figuring out the best options for his son.
“I researched for the best physician I could find, and the best possible doctor I found was at the Cleveland Clinic,” Chris said.
Chris entrusted his son’s life to that of now retired Dr. Roger Mee of the Cleveland Clinic, who was a chief pediatric cardio-thoracic surgeon.
Chris wanted to make sure his son could withstand the procedure before undergoing open heart surgery. He waited four months before allowing Dalton to undergo the surgery.
It was during those four months that Chris said he learned what it truly meant to be a dad. It meant cherishing every laugh and coo, and the cries, too. It meant he wanted to remember how sweet his son smelled after being given a bath. And, he wanted Dalton to know how much he was loved.
Then, in November 2002, Chris gave Dalton a hug and kiss before handing him over to a nurse to prepare him for the nearly seven-hour surgery.
“I remember not being sure if I’d ever see him again,” Chris said.
Dalton’s surgery was successful. And, after spending about four days in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, he went home.
Once home, Dalton would not stop crying. Family members thought he might have colic because nothing soothed him.
Finally, at one of Dalton’s follow-up pediatric appointments, a doctor noticed he was being given too much nitrate. Dalton needed the nitrate to treat and prevent further heart problems. One of the side effects of the medication is headaches.
“He had headaches and couldn’t tell us,” said Chris, shaking his head while sitting next to Dalton at the kitchen table.
A clean bill of health
At his May checkup this year, an irregular heartbeat was detected; however, based on medical assessments over the years, Dalton has been declared healthy.
“Every third heartbeat, there’s an extra beat,” Dalton said.
Dalton’s medical prognosis is excellent. The doctors have not put any restrictions on his level of activity. Neither has his dad, who has been his main caregiver since a divorce when Dalton was 1 year old.
Dalton lives with Chris and his stepmother, Marsha Conn.
Chris said he encourages his son to give something at least a try. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t worry.
“Everything he deals with in life, I get nervous,” Chris said. “He’s my only child and my son.”
Donning baseball pants, a jersey and ball cap at the age of 4, Dalton tried baseball for one season, but he found it boring.
“I played in the dirt,” he said, laughing, and looking at his dad, he added, “You do worry too much.”
Leaning away from contact sports was Dalton’s choice. He admits he isn’t athletic; and that’s OK. He is active in Boy Scouts, band and has earned his red belt at Bowen’s Martial Arts Academy.
“I could do other sports, I just chose not to,” Dalton said. “I have the ability and am healthy enough to do I would think just about any sport. I just didn’t want to play football or soccer, or anything like that.”
Inside the Conn car shop on the family’s property is where many heart-to-heart conversations have been had between granddad, dad and son.
Chris’ adoptive dad, Jim Conn, came into his life in 1985. Jim married Chris’ mom in 1987 and they were married for 13 years before divorcing in 2000.
Not that the divorce mattered to the relationship.
“He adopted my sister and I, then when he and my mother divorced, I grew super tight with him and we have been ever since,” Chris said.
It was Jim who introduced Chris to race car driving.
“He was racing when he and my mom met,” Chris said. “He helped me build my car and I helped him build his.”
Race car driving has since become Dalton’s passion, too. The roar of the engine, the smell of the oil and thrill of the ride are what drew Dalton to the sport.
Dalton was 10 when his dad allowed him to have his first junior dragster. And it was presented to him in a unique way: A Christmas scavenger hunt that ended inside the car shop.
Dalton had a race car to call his own.
He said he was a horrible racer at first, but after guidance from his granddad and dad, he has improved. Practice has helped.
“I was pretty bad at first, but I have been getting better,” Dalton said from inside the storage trailer where his junior dragster is kept.
Dalton now speeds down the track going faster than most roller coasters at Cedar Point.
“My fastest time is 7.90 seconds in an eighth of a mile,” he said. “My heart races till I see the pre-stage lights turn on, and then I just forget everything and drive.”
In part, the bond over car racing is because of Jim.
Jim, 61, still drives his 1972 Open GT race car in the Winchester, Va., area. It can go about a quarter-mile in eight seconds.
Chris, 45, has a 1976 Chevrolet Chevette that can go up to 135 mph. Dalton’s sleek junior dragster can go upward of 70 mph on the drag strip.
“I think it’s great that he races,” Jim said of Dalton. “I didn’t expect it, and it made me proud.”
Jim said he is amazed at Dalton’s determination.
“He has no apprehension,” Jim said
Chris and Dalton now spend hours, even entire weekends, talking race cars either at home or on the road.
“I love going to the track,” Dalton said. “I get to spend more time with my dad, doing the same thing that my dad and grandpa do, which is race. He is always there for me, no matter what.”