Mighty Blog

Born weighing less than 2 pounds, Eli grows up to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail

For Eli Byrn and his ​parents, Kathy and Mary Pat​​, the long, winding and unpredictable conditions of the Appalachian Trail serve as both the backdrop of Eli’s unforgettable six-month trek through the wilderness and the description of his care journey early in life.

​​Throughout​​ ​her pregnancy, Kathy experienced a series of complications. Her pregnancy was deemed high-risk, and she was put on bedrest. On Sept. 2, 2002 – just 24 weeks into her pregnancy – Kathy delivered Eli. The 1-pound and 4-ounce preemie was rushed from a neighboring hospital to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Children’s Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“Our doctor was excited and happy and said ‘hello cutie’ to Eli when he was born and immediately handed him off to​ be​ intubate​d​​,” Kathy shared. “​We​​ ​didn’t hold him until he was 1 week old.”

Months in the NICU

Eli spent 100 days growing in the Children’s Minnesota NICU where, even as a tiny baby, he persevered through several health challenges. This included multiple bouts with pneumonia in his developing lungs that led to permanent scar tissue. At only 3-weeks-old, Eli had surgery at Children’s Minnesota to close a heart valve that didn’t do so on its own after birth.

“Each of the doctors were so amazing with their time and respect; they consulted ​us​​​, telling ​us​​ that ​we were​​ ​the ​experts​​ ​of Eli even though they were the experts of neonatology,” Kathy said. “Most of all, though, ​we​​​ cannot thank the nurses enough. They became ​our​​ ​family. For those 100 days, I would go to the hospital and spend my whole day there until it was time to go pick up ​our​​ ​daughter from preschool.”

Kathy recalled the gratitude she still feels more than 20 years later for her son’s non-clinical care team members, which include child life, social work, lactation consultants and the nutrition team.

“​We​​ ​really give them the credit for such an amazing start to life that has led him and us to this place today – we are​​ ​forever grateful,” Kathy said.

Growing up

After 100 days in the NICU, Eli was able to go home – but his care journey was only beginning. As a child, Eli had asthma and ​used a nebulizer daily, but today is very healthy.​​ ​

As a boy, he battled dyslexia, a learning disability ​that ​​results in​​​ ​​​​​​lifelong difficulties with ​​reading and writing.

“He has always learned in life the value of perseverance,” Kathy, an educator, said about her son. “Eli is smart as a whip.”

A love for ​​adventure

In high school, Eli excelled at sports including ultimate frisbee, cross country skiing, running, rock climbing and mountain biking. Eli also spent summers as a kid camping with his uncle, and the time outdoors piqued his interest in a new challenge.

“I wanted to do something hard after high school, I like nature, so I was like, ‘why don’t I hike the Appalachian Trail,’” Eli said.

Eli hikes the Appalachian Trail

After 72 days of training in Colorado and parts of the southwestern United States, the day had finally come in March 2023 for Eli’s 2,​198.4​-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. After being born weighing less than 2 pounds, the now 6-foot tall, 21-year-old man started his six-month adventure hiking and camping on the trail that spans from Georgia to Maine.

“You’re in deep woods for a good deal of it and a lot of wildlife,” Eli said. “I saw black bears twice, there were posted warnings for an aggressive bear in the area, I walked through that – it’s not easy.”

Eli says he was on the trail during the rainiest year on record, faced​ steep terrain​ ​in the higher parts of the mountainous trail, and navigated around dangerous flooding. Still, he found time to call ​his parents​​ ​when a rare cell tower was around. Those calls came ​regularly until he reached the 100 miles of wilderness in Maine​ ​where there’s no way to phone home.

“We trusted him, he’s a responsible, cautious person,” Kathy said.

Eli recalled the moment he started to feel some doubt about continuing his journey, “there was never a moment I wanted to stop and go home until the last week, after 5 months and 3 weeks – the last week I hated a lot.”

Just the beginning

Just like everything else Eli has done in life since entering the world 16-weeks early, he endured. On Sept. 15, 2023 – nearly six months to the day after starting his hike – Eli finished his journey at Baxter State Park in Maine.

“I feel accomplished, but I’m not done. There’s more things I want to do,” Eli said. “I want to also hike the Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico. Both are ​500​​ ​miles longer than the Appalachian Trail and then I can complete the hiking​ of the​ ‘triple crown.’”

100 years of inspiring stories

Eli’s journey is one of countless inspiring stories created at Children’s Minnesota over the last 100 years; his started in what has become the region’s largest neonatology program.

“​We​​ ​want the nurses and doctors that helped Eli 21 years ago to know that if it was not for all their wise care and dedicated concern, he would not have been able to add this adventure to his list of life accomplishments,” Kathy said.