The call came while he was at practice-his baby daughter Tiana was in the emergency room, her condition life-threatening. Suddenly Charles Tillman's life went from happy-go-lucky family man and Chicago Bears cornerback to a whirlwind of hospital, football, hospital, football.
For 97 days-the number is etched in his memory-Tillman's daughter fought for life as she endured cardiomyopathy and a subsequent heart transplant in 2008. Through it all, Charles and his wife Jackie struggled to find time for their older daughter, only 2 at the time, while still keeping their marriage strong.
"You're angry. You're just so frustrated," Tillman remembers. "But we knew we were mad at the situation, not with each other. We tried to focus on being there for one another and not letting this tear our family apart."
Tillman always knew that family came first, but now as he sat in the hospital with his 3-month-old baby he realized just how much family really meant. Watching Tiana's struggle to survive, he told her, "I want to see your first soccer game. I want to see you get married one day."
"I thought of all those things that I wouldn't see when she almost died," Tillman recalls. "I felt like I was getting robbed."
People who didn't have a sick child would try to comfort Tillman by telling him they knew what he was going through. But they didn't-couldn't-know what it was like to have a critically ill child. Tillman found he could talk to a complete stranger, whose sick child was also in the hospital, better than he could talk to his best friend.
"I've come to realize, in the beginning you think you're alone. When she got sick, I got sick as well," says Tillman. "I've gone through the pain and suffering and the late nights in the hospital, and I felt bad as a parent. I don't want other parents to think they're alone."
Tillman had started the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation in 2005 to address educational needs in Chicago. Three years later, he realized he needed to change the focus of his work. He wanted to reach out to other parents sitting vigil in hospital rooms.
Tillman decided to help critically and chronically ill children and their families. Cornerstone Foundation buys video game consoles and laptop computers to help pass the time for children and to let parents stay connected to work and other family members. It grants wishes, often sports-related, for sick children.
It hosts a luncheon just for moms of sick kids. "Ninety percent of the time you're going to find the moms are the ones in the hospitals with their kids, and there's nothing like a mother's love," he says.
About 100 moms attended the luncheon, reveling in a moment away from the harsh realities of their lives. The discussions were therapeutic-many spoke of how guilty they felt that their child was sick. They couldn't help feeling they had done something wrong during their pregnancy. Most had not done anything for themselves for a long time, Tillman says. Now they were talking to other moms who knew what it was like to not even have time to shower. They exchanged e-mails and phone numbers.
The foundation has helped many local families-granting wishes, helping financially, making stays in the hospital a little easier for kids, siblings and parents. But he's not done yet. Tillman would like to see child care in each hospital-something he thinks is desperately needed.
Through his foundation, Tillman draws on his experiences as the father of a sick child to reach out and touch other families sitting by their child's bed, feeling like life has robbed them of a future. He wants to remind parents to keep going.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," he says. "Don't give up; don't lose hope."
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.