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On March 4, Luke Phillips—a political science major with plans to go to law school and specialize in Environmental Law—was one of more than 3,900 UConn students dancing at the 18-hour dance marathon called HuskyTHON, the culmination of a year-long fundraising effort to support Connecticut Children’s. This year's theme, selected by the student-led Management Team, was "Go Beyond" and they definitely didn't disappoint.

Like everyone else there, Luke was dancing to help sick kids, something he knew quite a bit about.

Luke with Michael, a Connecticut Children's patient

Luke's Story

His first encounter with the hospital happened when he was a sophomore in high school in Somers, Connecticut. He was playing lacrosse when he tore the labrum in his hip—soft tissue in the hip socket that cushions the joint and helps hold it together. The tear required surgery to repair it, and in the process of getting it fixed, Luke’s surgeon discovered that he had arthritic plaque—unusual for a 14-year-old boy. So the surgeon referred Luke to Connecticut Children’s rheumatologist Larry Zemel, MD, who began to treat him with a drug to keep the arthritis from progressing. Periodic check-ins were all he needed, and life should have been smooth sailing.

But Luke was not done with Connecticut Children’s. Three years later, Luke had been accepted to the Honors Program at Towson University in Maryland and was ready to enjoy his senior year of high school. But in December, he began having stomach cramps, which worsened after eating certain foods. Before long, he couldn’t keep any food or water down. He returned to Connecticut Children’s, but this time saw Jeffery Hyams, MD, Division Head of Gastroenterology. The results of a colonoscopy and endoscopy were inconclusive, so Dr. Hyams ordered an MRI, which revealed that Luke’s small intestine was nearly swollen shut. He had Crohn’s disease.

He spent the next week inpatient at Connecticut Children’s as Dr. Hyams and his team worked to decrease the swelling in Luke’s small intestine and get him the nutrition he had been lacking for weeks. During his hospital stay, the team placed a feeding port in his arm, through which he continued to receive intravenous nutrition for weeks after discharge.

“I had Crohn’s disease,” said Luke, “and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Luke learned he had two options ahead of him: wait to see if his body would allow him to consume food again or face surgery.

Kids dancing on stage at HuskyTHON 2023

Facing a Major Decision

By March 2019, this once-strapping high school athlete had lost 20 pounds and still couldn’t tolerate food. Once again, Luke was admitted to Connecticut Children’s, but this time, he had surgery to remove 16 inches of his small intestine. “The care I got at Connecticut Children’s was incredible,” says Luke, “And I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Hyams.”

Though he completed his college orientation at Towson four days after his first inpatient stay, Luke’s dad suggested he consider a school closer to home. “I wanted to be close to my doctors,” says Luke. That’s when the University of Connecticut entered the conversation for the first time. “It was pouring rain, and I walked around the campus with my mom,” says Luke. And that was the day he made a life-changing decision: he wanted to be a Husky. On the last day of his post-surgical inpatient stay, Luke received his admissions acceptance from UConn.

As he made plans to attend UConn starting in fall 2019, Luke recalled a close family friend who had served as the executive director of HuskyTHON. Inspired by his friend’s work and grateful for the care he received at Connecticut Children’s, Luke immediately got involved. He joined the HuskyTHON Rising Leaders Program, which provides new participants with coaching for their fundraising efforts, as well as workshops, so new students can define why they dance and learn more about the work their efforts support at Connecticut Children’s.

Luke also joined Alpha Sigma Phi and was impressed by the impact his fraternity brothers had at the dance marathon. “They were really passionate about HuskyTHON,” he says. “And they were able to instill that in me. I looked up to them.” As a freshman, Luke raised $1,000 and participated in his first HuskyTHON in March 2020.

"It was the best day of my life," he says. "It was a crazy moment for me because it was almost exactly a year after I entered the hospital for the first time, so it was super surreal seeing where I was compared to where I had been. I knew I wanted to do more."

HuskyTHON Morale Dance 2023

A few weeks after his first HuskyTHON was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the UConn campus shut down. It also put significant restrictions in place at Connecticut Children’s. And that made it all the more difficult when, on Mother’s Day 2020, Luke experienced a massive flare up and obstruction, which sent him to the Emergency Department. “It was one of the scariest things I have ever seen,” he says. “Everyone was freaking out and there were people walking around in haz-mat suits.” Despite the fear, Luke’s resolve was strengthened.

“It made me see that HuskyTHON was needed more than ever,” he says. “All the money we raise makes it so we don’t have to worry about getting the care we need to be okay, even at the scariest times.”

As a sophomore, he became the HuskyTHON chair, as well as the VP for philanthropy and service for his fraternity. He worked closely with Ryan Young and Maggie Angelo, the HuskyTHON directors for hospital relations, a role that Luke applied for and earned as a junior. With his devotion to HuskyTHON firmly set, Luke demonstrated his passion by getting the FOR THE KIDS tattooed on his right thigh. “It was a symbol of me taking on this whole new mission of doing everything I can for Connecticut Children’s because of what they had done for me over the past two years.”

In his senior year, Luke was responsible for overseeing all of the volunteers for HuskyTHON 2023 and directed the Rising Leaders Program, helping new students define why they dance. Luke has his own, special motivation: “I was at my lowest when I went to Connecticut Children’s,” he says, “and while I was in the hospital, I spent a lot of time with the kids who were younger than me and had been there for so long. Many of them hadn’t been given the opportunities I have, or they hadn’t been able to rebound in the same way I have. So, I dance for more second chances.”

Nationally, HuskyTHON 2023 achieved #1 ranking for registration/participation and, thanks to the grit and determination of nearly 4,000 students that took "Go Beyond" to a whole new level, they achieved an amazing fundraising total of $1,480,255.77! This solidifies HuskyTHON's place as the #3 Dance Marathon in the country for fundraising this year. HuskyTHON continues to build a remarkable legacy since its inception in 1999. With cumulative fundraising exceeding $11.5 million, student-led fundraising has supported a variety of areas, including the Greatest Need Children's Fund, Cardiology and the Center of Procedural Excellence, named New England's first and only Center of Excellence by the National Society of Pediatric Sedation (SPS).

HuskyTHON 2023 raised nearly $1.5 million!

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