On the surface, it doesn’t look like there’s anything remarkable about Liam Orlando, 11, one of the students in the Wednesday after-school climbing class at the Boulder Rock Club. He’s climbing, belaying, cheering on the other kids, horsing around with his pal Nick Finch.
Nothing remarkable — except that Orlando spent much of the first half of his life in the hospital.
Orlando was born with Autosomal Recessive Polycystic Kidney Disease, a rare disease that caused him to be born with huge, cyst-riddled kidneys that pressed against his heart, stomach, lungs — everything.
“We did not think he was going to live for more than three days,” said his mom, Susan Orlando. After a normal pregnancy, it was a shock to have Liam ripped from her arms after delivery for a flight-for-life to Denver.
Liam had his kidneys removed at six months and underwent daily dialysis at home until he received a transplant from his father, Pete, at two and a half.
“And then he started getting pancreatitis, and he can’t eat,” Susan said. “And nobody knew why. He almost died five times. And finally they put us in the hospital and kept us there for about 7 months.”
“Then they decided we needed a liver transplant.”
Liam got one — at age 4. Then at 5, he had neurosurgery twice for swelling of the optic nerve, a complication due to the many medications he was on that could have left him blind if untreated.
“He’s had 19 surgeries related to, not including the transplants,” Susan said. “He’s had every painful procedure you can imagine.”
Though he still has a slew of ongoing complications, life is now looking a little more normal for the kid his mom and dad call “Superman.” Last year, he even went to a friend’s birthday party at the Boulder Rock Club and climbed. He liked it so much that his parents signed him up for an after-school class, despite the expense — the family has a lot of medical bills.
“So here he is rock climbing,” Susan said. “And never, ever did I think I’d see him rock climbing.”
From one climber to another
In the meantime, the friends of climber Roy Barnes were looking for an appropriate way to honor their friend. Barnes died in August 2010, and the energy and camaraderie of this longtime member of the Boulder Rock Club was missed.
“He was an early morning staple here,” said Kevin Bains, of the BRC. “And just always climbing, always had a good group of partners, always willing to help other people climb — just a really nice guy.”
“He was always there, and always positive and loved to go to the Rock Club,” said Barnes’ friend Alan Higham. “Just one of the guys, and just had this great passion about him.”
“Jay (Smith) and I were talking quite a bit about Roy,” Higham said. “We said, ‘you know, we need to do something in Roy’s name.'”
In addition to asking the BRC to name Barnes’ favorite wall after him (they did), Higham, Smith, Bob Ratliff and Dan Levinson decided to sponsor a young climber. They all pitched in to get the funding rolling, Higham said, for equipment and classes, and the BRC kicked in with a membership. La Sportiva offered a pair of shoes.
“We all had a sense of what type of kid we would want to see, but we were really struggling to put it into words and make it happen,” Higham said. “I said to Mike (Alkaitis), the general manager, ‘can you help us find a kid?’ And he came back and said, ‘Alan, I have the perfect kid.'”
Bains said when they told Liam’s story at a BRC management meeting, everyone agreed to go beyond the one-year membership for the Barnes scholarship and do something the club had never done — give Liam a lifetime membership.
“We love to help the community, and we so rarely get to make a big impact,” Bains said. “So when we saw this opportunity, we wanted to help this child.”
A nice guy
“He’s a nice guy,” said Liam’s friend and classmate at the BRC, Nick Finch, age 13. “Actually, he’s really good at climbing, really good at belaying,” he added.
“He cheers you on when you’re climbing,” Finch said. “I have a thing with heights, but to have someone cheer you on is helpful with that.”
With organ transplants, Orlando can’t do contact sports. His mom said he’d played a few ball sports, which terrified her. But she wants him to have a normal life.
“The surgeons told me, we didn’t do all of this, Susan, to keep him in a bubble,” she said. “You have to let him go.”
On a recent Wednesday at the Rock Club, Orlando tied in while Finch put him on belay. Finch took a critical look at his friend’s knot.
“Extra knot,” Finch said.
“Oh yeah, safety knot,” Orlando replied, looping the rope again once more. Then he climbed.
“He feels this sense of belonging, like he has a tribe now,” Susan said, adding that climbers young and old have embraced Liam.
“You can just see it when he walks in the door, just his whole being brightens up,” Higham said. “And to see his mom and dad, how they react to that? It’s just great.”
Higham said he thinks his friend Barnes “would be beside himself” about all of this.
“First of all, I don’t think he had a sense of what we all thought about him,” he said “And I think he would be incredibly humbled to think there’s a kid at the Boulder Rock Club climbing in his name.”
Jen Herling, Liam’s instructor at the BRC, said getting to the top of a climb is monumental for him, she said.
“It’s a metaphor for him. It’s him succeeding against all odds.”