Paco Rodriguez dreamed of being a hero

Dear Recipient,

My name is Sonia, the proud wife of Francisco Rodriguez. The reason for my letter is that I learned you are a recipient of my husband's donation and through this letter, I would like you to know a little bit about him. I'll start by mentioning that Francisco was a very loving husband, father and friend and most importantly, of a truly humble and kind heart, which to me made him extremely special. He was very dedicated to his family and his career. My husband was a professional athlete, who loved the sport with a passion …

Like three little ducklings, they would trail after Evaristo Rodriguez, the oldest son Alejandro or "Alex," the middle, Evaristo Jr., whom they called Tito, and the baby Francisco, whom they called Paco.

Evaristo Rodriguez, who boxed professionally in his native Mexico and in the U.S., and his wife Maria, from Guadalajara, settled in Chicago in 1979. As boys, their sons had a choice: Go to the gym or stay home with the doors locked. The gym was the safest place Evaristo knew, and boxing, he reasoned, with the head gear and gloves, the safest sport.

"No other sport interested me," he said. "I always liked it, liked being with them so they were busy. It was the best that I could do for them."

Tito, two years behind Alex and six years older than Paco, became a national Golden Gloves champion at age 17 before retiring. Alex stopped boxing at age 12 after suffering a ruptured appendix and other intestinal problems.

And the baby of the family? Evaristo first took Paco to the gym in diapers, holding him and guiding his little fists to the bag. Still, Paco didn't seem particularly motivated to box until winning a local tournament at age 13 and again at 14. At 16, he won the National Golden Gloves championship in Las Vegas, the first Chicago champion since Tito.

"Paco was on his way to becoming something great," said family friend George Hernandez, Chicago Park District boxing director. "He was going to be the one that would actually break through and make some noise in the boxing community."

Paco, they all said, was special.


Hello Sonia,

My name is Alexis. I am the recipient of your beloved husband's heart. … I am 26 years old and single. I have future plans on becoming a nurse anesthetist. … I was diagnosed with heart failure in March 2005. After that, life became difficult for me as my health rapidly declined. My family began to make preparations for the worst …

She never expected it. Even with a grandmother who died of heart failure, a mother with a pacemaker and six aunts and uncles with varying degrees of heart disease, when you're 21, going to school, tending bar and you come down with a dry cough, you chalk it up to a cold, not pulmonary emboli. When you're on your way to a party and start feeling weak and throw up, you think flu not congestive heart failure.

"I was frightened, I didn't know what I was going to do," said Alexis Sloan of her emergency room trip in March 2005. "I hadn't started my life yet. I wanted to know what was going to happen to me."

She figured they'd give her a pill, maybe a few, and send her home. Doctors actually found a regimen that worked for a while. But less than a year later, she was told she would need a defibrillator implanted and shortly after, would need a new heart.

"I was scared, I was very scared," she said, beginning to cry. "I thought I was going to die."


Dear Donor Family,

I am the recent recipient of your loved one's double-lung transplant. … I can only imagine how hard it would be to lose someone you love. I want you to know that because of your decision to donate their organs, that you were able to save my life. I am unable to express in words how grateful I am. I am a 23-year-old survivor of Cystic Fibrosis. CF is a genetic disease that mainly affects the lungs and digestive system, with a life expectancy of 30 years …

When doctors told Charlotte and Bob Owens that their 10-month-old baby had cystic fibrosis, they were also told that the average life expectancy for CF patients was 12. Ashely was a little more hopeful.

"I was pretty much told growing up, like ever since I was little I knew that I probably wouldn't make it to 25," she said.

Still, her parents did not treat her like a sickly child. Despite as many as four nebulizer treatments three times a day; up to four sessions consisting of thumping on her chest to clear congestion; and through frequent hospital visits for bouts of pneumonia and to help her gain weight because CF patients use up so much energy breathing, there were still friends, tennis for a while, swimming and gymnastics. No team sports though.

"Because I didn't know when I would get sick or go in the hospital," Ashley said. "I didn't feel like I would be very reliable for my teammates."

She was matter-of-fact about a lot of things. She made a "bucket list" -- ride in a hot air balloon, white-water rafting, a trip to an island, creating her own recipe and making her own Halloween costume. She wanted to graduate from college and become an elementary school teacher. And she wanted to get married.

She stayed in high school, a feat in itself. Hospital stays were lasting two to three weeks each, three to four times a year. And she met Jesse.

"I remember she was one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen ever," said Jesse Quinter, who first spotted Ashley in study hall at Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown, Pa., in the winter of 2003, when he was a senior and she a junior.

"I expressed that I liked her," Quinter recalled, "and she said, 'You know, that's great and I like you a lot, too, but before we get together, I need you to know everything about me so there are no surprises.' And then she told me. And it didn't bother me in any way."

She was 19 when she stopped responding to medicine.


Dear Ashley,

… I am very sorry to hear about your illness and all the challenges you had to overcome. I have to tell you that losing my husband has been the most painful event in my life and every day I miss him even more. I really wish that he was here so that we could live life the way we had planned but in this world, we don't have the option of making life decisions. God is the only one that has the power to predispose what can and can't happen. I have to say I'm thankful with God regardless of the pain that I've been put through. I thank him for giving me five wonderful years with Francisco, because even though they were five short years, they were the best years of my life. In him, I found the best of friends, and the most wonderful man in my life. He made me extremely happy and I can't thank God and Francisco enough for electing me as his wife and the mother of his one and only child …

He liked the Cubs. She liked the Sox. They met when her sister Celia and his brother Tito, who were dating at the time, came to pick Sonia up from work. Paco came along for the ride. The four went to a concert. A few nights later, they all went bowling. And two weeks after they met, Paco asked Sonia whether she wanted to be his girlfriend.

She said yes.

He was funny. "I'm probably the funniest, too," Sonia said, "so I said, 'Well, he's funny and he's nice. I don't need anything else."

He had never wanted girls to know he was a boxer because he was afraid they would like him only for that. When he told Sonia, she didn't pay much attention. "I kind of took it as he was doing it as a hobby," she said.

Then one day he told her he was going out of town for a fight. She figured he was probably serious about this boxing thing. She didn't like the sport, disliked the violence, but she supported him.

"I said if those are his dreams, then I'm going to be there for him," she said. "Because that's how much I loved him."

They were married at Chicago's City Hall on Jan. 14, 2006, three years after they met. He was 21, she was 20.

"I never thought I would find the man of my dreams," she said. "So when I met Paco, I said I was really wrong. He had everything that I needed in a man. He was very courteous with me, he always wanted to please me. He wanted the best for him and I. It wasn't about him, it was about both of us. … "

They saved up for a big church wedding and reception, and, on the big day two years later, Sonia told her husband she wanted at least five children.

"Wow, that's quite a bit," she remembers him saying, "but I think I can do it."

They figured they'd wait until Sonia finished college and Paco was more established in his sport, but Sonia became pregnant. Paco was over the moon. He talked of moving them to Las Vegas one day and buying a house. Their daughter was born June 7, 2009. It was Paco's idea to name her Ginette, after a favorite Spanish song of Sonia's.

"He found the baby to be a bigger cause for him to really be someone in boxing," she said.

Between his job as a messenger, Paco changed diapers, washed bottles, burped and bathed Ginette. When the family left the house, he carried the baby and everything else, ignoring the teasing from his brothers.

The couple talked about their future, and Sonia hoped it would not include boxing.

She had attended a few of Paco's fights, but couldn't stand seeing him get hit and would run to the bathroom. "I'd hear stories about boxers getting seriously injured," she said, "and I didn't want to be there if it ever happened to him.

"And then after a few fights I said to him, 'You know what? I can't bear to see you in a ring.' And he said, 'If it hurts you that much, then just stay home.' So after that, I just started staying home."

Paco's mother, Maria, took one pill for nerves and another for her blood pressure just to be able to go to his fights because her son wanted her there. Sonia and his parents asked him to consider giving it up.

"The day I die," Paco would respond when his father brought it up, "I can be out there running, and if someone is going to kill me, they're going to kill me. Or I can be inside the house with you. If God wants to take me, He'll take me … "

Still, they persisted. Sonia asked him to go back to school, so he did. For a few semesters.

"Babe, this is not for me," Sonia remembered Paco telling her. "Boxing is what I want to do. I made up my mind."

Paco, by then a five-time Chicago Golden Gloves champ, reassured her.

"I'm always well prepared," she says he told her. "Nothing's going to happen to me. Don't worry."

"So I would believe him," Sonia said. "I would believe his words."


Dear Sonia and family members,

… My name is Meghan and I too had high hopes of becoming a professional athlete. Growing up I swam and spent most of my childhood and teenage years training; waking up at 4 a.m. to go to practice before school and then leaving straight from school to return back to the pool for practice and weights. I always thought I would make the 2008 Olympics … "

Meghan Kingsley had enough concerns, but her liver was not one of them.

Sports came naturally to her. Her family lived on the grounds of a ski resort in Hidden Valley, Pa., where her father was a sales manager until she was 2. They later vacationed there, where she and her older brother were introduced to swimming. Meghan idolized Olympic medalists Janet Evans and Summer Sanders, and dreamed herself of competing in the Olympics. When she was 8, she met Evans when the then-Olympian visited Meghan's swim club in Rockville, Md.

From age 8 until 12, Meghan was one of the top swimmers in her age group in Maryland, and she remembered one race in particular when her swim club competed against a rival and it came down to the last relay, and the last flip turn, for the division lead.

"I am like, I'm not going to breathe the whole way back, I'm just going to push as hard as I can," she said. "And I swam the hardest I think I ever swam in my whole life."

Meghan touched the wall one-tenth of a second before her opponent, setting off a wild celebration and a feeling every athlete covets.

"That's something I'll never forget," she said, softly. "I think that was one of my last greatest races I ever swam."

By 13, she began slowing down and tiring easily. Her body was changing, and she assumed she was burning out. She noticed her left foot, which had turned in differently than her right since age 8, was stiffening and more arched, which had been affecting her in the breaststroke. She later noticed weakness in the left leg and balance issues.

At 15, doctors discovered she had some hearing loss, but no one seemed to be able to put all the symptoms together until, at 16, a neurologist diagnosed neurofibromatosis Type 2. Meghan was told she had numerous nonmalignant tumors in her brain and on her spine, and they were dangerous, growing on nerves that made it difficult to walk and eventually caused the loss of hearing in her left ear after the second of two brain surgeries. In the spring of 2009, she learned the hearing in her right ear was failing, as well.

News of a clinical drug trial provided hope to save the hearing in her right ear and perhaps slow the growth of the tumors.

No one told her it would almost kill her.


Dear Sonia,

My name is Victoria, 57 years old, white female. I was a diabetic for 20 years and was on dialysis for three and a half. … On Nov. 23, 2009, I received a call, "This is the one." It has changed my whole life. I received a kidney and a pancreas and each day, I think of your husband's sacrifice, so I could live a normal life again. …"

Her mother and sister were diabetics, her older sister dying of the disease at 66, and her brother was recently diagnosed.

"I felt like it was a curse because it's supposed to skip a generation, it's not supposed to be, or so I was told, every person in your family," said Vicky Davis, who found out at 27 that she had gestational diabetes, then, at 37, Type II diabetes.

Over the years, her condition deteriorated to Type I, and when she had trouble controlling her diabetes, she was forced to begin dialysis treatments -- three times a week for four hours a day, beginning in 2005. In '06, doctors told Davis they wanted to place her on the transplant list for a new kidney and a pancreas.

She expected to have the surgery within six months. But after two years of waiting, she said, "I was thinking I should call it quits …"


On the day of the fight, Paco, his dad and Tito, who was Paco's manager, went to breakfast, drove around Philadelphia and ended up at the steps of the Museum of Art, looking up at the Rocky statue. Paco held a video camera while his father and brother raced up the steps. Paco wanted to run, but Tito said no, they weren't taking a chance he'd get hurt.

Paco was scheduled to fight against rising star and hometowner Teon Kennedy at the legendary Blue Horizon on Nov. 20, 2009. It wasn't for a world title, but it was for a contender belt -- the vacant USBA junior featherweight championship -- which meant a shot at bigger fights and better paydays.

Paco called himself "El Niño Azteca," a showman who walked into the ring for each fight accompanied by friends, many times a small band, and handed out T-shirts with his picture on them. He was no Rocky, but those who knew him said Paco "fought like a Mexican," which meant he could take a punch with the best of them.

Fear? If Paco had it, said Hernandez, Paco's cut man that night, he would never have become the boxer he was.

"Some trainers say, 'Oh, I can teach you anything.' But you can't teach balls, you know? … " Hernandez said. "Paco had balls. There was no quit in Paco."

In the closing seconds of the first round, Paco was caught by a left hook to the chin, then staggered with an overhand right to the head, drawing an eight count by referee Benjy Esteves. The fight continued.

"I expected Teon to come out in that second round and end it there," said Bernard Fernandez, longtime boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, who covered the bout. "But Paco had a great fighting heart."

In their corner, Tito asked his brother how he felt and got an "OK." Then he yelled at him.

"I told you to watch out for the right hand," Tito said. "Now keep moving."

Paco came out in the second round and took the fight to Kennedy. The bout was one of momentum shifts. Both fighters connected to the face. Kennedy's eye swelled shut. Many observers, as well as the judges, had it even or close through seven rounds.

Toward the end of the ninth round, Paco got tagged a couple of times but refused to take a knee. When the bell rang, Tito jumped into the ring along with the ring physician, Jonathan Levyn, who evaluated Paco in his corner.

"What's your name?" the doctor asked. "Do you know where you are?"

Paco passed the test; the doctor left; and Tito moved back in front of his brother.

"You gotta move," he told him. "Don't take any punishment. If you have to take a knee … it's just one point. We got three more rounds. Do you feel good?"

"Yeah," Paco responded, "I feel good."


Dear Dad,

You always told me that whenever someone goes, it is best to remember all the good times and be grateful for all the times we had. So instead of talking about all the things I wish we got to do, I'm going to remember all the wonderful times that we did have. … Now I know this is another hard time and it's important for you to be strong for Mom and Robert … I will be in heaven watching over you and waiting till the day we can all be together. I love you Dad.

Ashley Owens was dying. It was Friday, Nov. 13, 2009, and despite even more pain in her chest and trouble breathing than usual, she drove in a downpour to the campus of West Chester University to take an elementary education test.

She parked her car, got out and made it across the street before she couldn't go any farther. She stumbled back to her car, soaking wet, and called her boyfriend, Jesse, who was also a student there, to come get her. As he had been doing for several months when Ashley had trouble walking far, Jesse came over and carried her to class. She hated it, but it was better than a wheelchair. Jesse was always there. Once he strapped on an oxygen mask and walked through the mall with her so she wouldn't feel self-conscious. And it wasn't difficult for him to carry her -- she was 5 feet tall and weighed just 69 pounds.

In pain after class and before summoning the strength to drive home, she called the University of Pennsylvania transplant center, which had informed her that until she weighed more than 70 pounds, they could not put her on the transplant list.

"Can you please just make an exception?" she pleaded. "I promise I'm going to seriously try this whole week. I'll eat. I just need to get on that list."

She had feared the idea of a lung transplant, scared off by daunting survival statistics, terrified that she would go through traumatic surgery and still not make it. "But I just realized how bad I wanted to get better," she said. "I wanted to at least go fighting than just let it take me."

Over the phone, they agreed. A few hours after that, her condition worsened to the point that she would have been too ill to qualify for the list.

On the way home, Ashley felt something pop in her chest. The pain was intense, and she felt as if she was drowning. She gasped for air. A couple of hours later, as her parents and Jesse drove her screaming to the hospital an hour away, her right lung collapsed.

As she lay in critical care at Philadelphia's St. Christopher's Hospital for Children one week later on Friday, Nov. 20, just miles from where a young boxer named Francisco "Paco" Rodriguez was to fight Teon Kennedy, Ashley was told by her doctors that she probably had about two weeks to live if she did not get a transplant. Christmas if she was lucky.

She called Jesse, who refused to hear it.

Later that afternoon, he walked into the room and told her that she was going to get the surgery and that she was going to get better. That they would grow old together. He didn't intend to propose that day, but he had bought an engagement ring a few weeks earlier and was looking for an opportunity. After talking to the doctors, he decided this was the perfect time and dropped to one knee.

"Oh no, not here in the hospital," Ashley wailed.

Jesse looked up at her. "Shh," he whispered. "Don't ruin this."

Ashley began to cry.

"We've been through a lot of stuff throughout everything with your health, and all the other fun things that we've done," he said. "And I'm sure we're going to go through a lot more stuff. I want to be there through everything, and I want you to know that whatever happens here, that I'm with you.

"Will you marry me?"

"Yes," she blurted.

"It was the best it could have been at the time," Jesse said. "It was the best way it could have happened."


By November 2009, Alexis Sloan felt she had lived a lifetime in four years. And in some ways, she had. In 2005, she was told her heart was failing. Later that year, she was admitted to Philadelphia's Hahnemann Hospital. Her health deteriorated, her heart stopped, forcing doctors to implant a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a surgically implanted pumping mechanism to assist a heart that can no longer do that effectively.

"Alexis," said Theresa Rowe, a nurse coordinator who helps organize transplant evaluation processes, "was as critical as it gets."

She couldn't take a shower with the device. She couldn't walk out of her house without carrying an eight-pound battery pack that lasted four hours and a backup battery pack. At home, even getting a glass of water meant she had to momentarily unhook herself from the power base unit.

She was overwhelmed the first couple of months and depressed to the point that, during one hospital stay, she unhooked herself from the power unit, knowing she could die.

"I mean, I appreciated the technology being available," she recalled, in tears, "but I felt like a robot, and for me, I couldn't live like that. … My mind was in a really dark place."

A rabid boxing fan, she hated the pity parties by well-meaning strangers and friends. Most demoralizing was the fight she had to wage to get on the transplant list, a battle made tougher, she said, after two young transplant recipients in her clinic hadn't followed post-transplant protocols.

"It was hard for me to prove I wouldn't take a new heart for granted," she said.

In May 2008, Sloan finally got on the transplant list, and, with the support of family, her attitude improved. She put the battery packs in a suitcase and wheeled it onto the train and to the senior center where she worked. She waited hopefully.

Morbid as it was, she knew from her days tending bar that the odds of receiving a new organ increased around the holidays. And so, each year as summer turned to fall, she looked forward to a call.


The 10th round was bad.

Observers said it was as if fatigue overcame Paco all at once. Twice he slipped to the canvas, though not from blows. Once, Esteves warned Kennedy for pushing him down, but it was clear that Paco was weakening.

Finally, a fierce left-right combination by Kennedy sent Paco into the ropes. Esteves jumped in, calling the fight over at 1:52.

Tito grabbed his brother, led him back to his corner, sat him on the stool and began with his father to take off Paco's gloves.

"You all right, man?" Tito asked.

"Yeah," Paco told him.

"It's OK, man," said Tito. "We're going home. … Don't worry about it. It's just a fight. We'll come back."

The Kennedy corner came over and congratulated Paco as the ring doctor gave him simple commands.

But with one hand on the stool, Paco was unsteady as he tried to brace himself with his other hand on the ropes.

"Paquito, look at me, look at me," said Hernandez, his cut man. "How do you feel?"

"What's wrong?" Tito asked as Paco rubbed the left side of his head.

"It's a little swollen," Paco said.

Tito told him that he was going to get him some ice and that he should try to walk it off.

"Paco said, 'No. I don't feel good. I'm getting sleepy," Tito recalled.

"I told him, 'Don't go to sleep, stay with me,'" said Tito, who waved the doctor back over, who had gone to examine Kennedy.

"I started talking to him again," Tito said, "but my brother wasn't answering my questions anymore."

No more than a minute had passed since the end of the fight when Hernandez said he looked up and saw Paco's eyes roll back as his body went limp.

Looking on, horrified, Evaristo did the only thing a father could do.

"In that moment," he recalled. "I asked God not to take him, that I would exchange my life for his."


In the ambulance on the way to Philadelphia's Hahnemann Hospital, Tito screamed at his brother: "We have to get back home! You've got a wife and daughter waiting for you!"

But the left side of Paco's brain was swelling, and, within hours doctors would tell Evaristo and Tito Rodriguez that there was little hope for Paco's survival.

Back in Chicago, Sonia and Maria were getting anxious. Too much time had passed without Paco calling to tell them about the fight. Maria called Alex, and it sounded as if he had been crying. He told his mother he had been sleeping, but she didn't buy it. He told her Paco was getting sutured.

"Tell me the truth," Maria demanded.

A half hour later, Alex arrived at the house with Celia, Sonia's sister who is Tito's wife, and told Maria and Sonia what he knew.

Their wailing filled the home.

"In my desperation as a mother, I began screaming to the heavens," Maria said, "begging God to heal my son."

Maria, Sonia and Alex took a 6 a.m. flight to Philadelphia and when she saw her son for the first time after the accident, machines pumping to keep him alive, Maria grabbed her husband and shook him.

"Why didn't you protect him?" she wept.

"I did protect him," he cried. "I don't know what happened."

Evaristo was inconsolable. He was Paco's trainer, his sons jokingly nicknaming him "Jefe" for "Boss," and the two were inseparable each day during Paco's workouts. Paco wouldn't begin until his father arrived at the gym. It was Evaristo who held his son's legs while he did sit-ups, who ran alongside him and, even into his 50s, still sparred with him.

Covered with ice packs to control a fever as he lay in grave condition, Paco coughed and twitched, giving Sonia a measure of hope amid the dire prognosis. But nurses cautioned her they were not necessarily meaningful movements. And, with final brain function tests conducted just after midnight Saturday, doctors told her that her husband was gone.

"I was so confused," she said softly, "because he had promised me he was going to come back."

Paco was pronounced dead at 7:42 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009.

Alex was in the room when Janet Andrews, transplant coordinator from the donor program Gift of Life, came to talk to Sonia.

"I said, 'Don't say anything, just listen to me first,'" Alex recalled of his words to Sonia. "'One heartbeat for Francisco was like three for someone else. And his lungs? The kid ran every day and was never out of breath. It would be such a waste for his organs to not help someone else.'"

Evaristo brought up Alex's then-9-month-old daughter Alejandra, who was born with just one kidney. But doctors had told Alex and his wife that a transplant was not necessary.

Maria immediately thought of her cousin Ramón, who was on dialysis and on the transplant list in Chicago in need of a kidney, and she was assured he would receive the organ if it was a match.

The final decision was left up to Sonia, but she did not need convincing. She and Paco had discussed organ donation, and both agreed it would be the right thing to do. And aside from initial trepidation from Tito, who had flown back home to Chicago, the family was in full support.

"This was one of the easiest conversations I ever had with a family," Andrews said. "There was no hesitation. It seemed like this was something in line with what Paco and his life was about."

At the time of Paco's death, there were approximately 108,000 people waiting on transplant lists in the U.S., including more than 6,000 in Philadelphia.

"He would always tell me he wanted to be a hero," Sonia said. "So I said if that was his goal in life, then we're going to do it for him."


Before Ramón Tejada became so sick that he was forced to go on dialysis in 2003, his family and Paco's family often spent time together. At 30, he had developed kidney stones and cysts that indicated he was in the beginning stages of kidney failure.

In 2004, Tejada -- whom Paco and his brothers called "Uncle" -- was put on the transplant list.

Paco's kidney was a perfect match. Maria had just one request.

"She asked that I stay close to them, that I could visit maybe every day or as much as possible to be near them, and that the whole family stay closer," Ramón recalled. "I said it would give me pleasure."

Ramón thanked her.

"Don't be grateful," Maria told him. "All that I ask is that you take care of that kidney. Take care of it so it will last you many years."


Meghan Kingsley thought it was a side effect of the trial medication she had been taking that caused her to be so ill in October '09. The idea was to either stabilize or decrease the size of the tumor to stem the hearing loss caused by neurofibromatosis. But two months after beginning the drug trial, her liver began to fail.

She was so ill that she can't remember clearly when doctors told her she would need a new liver. On Monday, Nov. 23, they told her they had one, from a male donor her age, 25.

Several hours later, with Meghan in the operating room, the family heard the helicopter land at the hospital.

Meghan has heard the story enough times to tell it herself.

"They all looked at each other like, 'Oh my goodness that's Meghan's liver, this is the moment. She's going to be given a new chance, another new life,'" she said.

Doctors told the family afterward that 10 percent of Meghan's liver was functioning and that if she had not received the new organ, she would have been dead within 48 hours.


Although privacy laws and organ donor networks like Gift of Life in Philadelphia strive to protect the identities of donors and recipients unless both parties want to communicate with each other, the Paco Rodriguez case was unique. First, the public nature of Paco's story gave it wide circulation. And Sonia and Paco's family wanted to meet the recipients and the recipients wanted to meet them.

Early on, the recipients figured out the identity of their donor. Friends told Meghan after reading an article about Paco and putting the pieces together. Vicky said she was told when she got the call that a kidney and pancreas were available, that the donor was 25 and a boxer. Ashley did an Internet search after getting the letter from Sonia, who said her husband's name was Francisco and that he was a professional athlete.

And Alexis, who had been to fight nights at the Blue Horizon, figured it out through intuition and hearsay -- relatives heard news about the boxer's death, and, after the surgery, Hahnemann Hospital employees made casual remarks.

"How're ya doin' today, champ?" they said. "You have a strong, fighting heart."


It's late on the afternoon of Dec. 1, 2010, in suburban Itasca, Ill., when they meet for the first time in the offices of Gift of Hope, the local organ and tissue transplant network. With assistance from Gift of Life and "E:60," Paco's family and the recipients came together -- a wish they both had expressed. Sonia walks in with her daughter in her arms, the little girl bright and squirmy and surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins.

"Where's papa?" Alex asks Ginette, whom the family calls Gigi. She smiles and points to his shirt, which has a picture of her father wearing boxing gloves and angel's wings.

Alex, Maria, Sonia and Gigi wait to meet the four women they already describe as family. Soon, the room is awash in tears.

"My mother thanks God for the chance to meet you," Alex says, translating. "From the beginning she knows that you are all very important to her, but she wanted to meet … she wanted to hear …

"My brother's heart," he says finally.

Alexis approaches Paco's mother, and the two fall sobbing into each other's arms. Alexis guides Maria's hand to her chest, her head to her heart. She does the same with Sonia's hand, then Gigi's.

"He is no longer with us," Alex says, speaking his mother's words, "but she knows that he is with us through you guys."

Alexis scoops up Gigi with hugs and kisses, and the little girl rests her head on Alexis' shoulder. A red-eyed Evaristo exchanges hugs with the women. Ramón politely shakes hands with Vicky before she tells him, "I'm Vicky. I have the other kidney."

They pledge a connection to each other that can never be broken. And the rest of their families file in -- Ashley's fiancé, Vicky's husband, Alexis' stepmother, Meghan's mom, Sharon, who holds Maria tightly.

"From one mother to another, nobody could understand it but yourself," she whispers into Maria's ear. "But I thank you for the gift that you've given us, because without him, she wouldn't be alive, either."

Gigi keeps them smiling, carrying framed photographs of her father to each of her new friends.

"All my mom asks of you guys is to take care of yourselves," Alex says. "Take care of your piece of Paco. Enjoy your second chance at life."

"It's your turn to live," Sonia says.


Alexis, studying to become a nurse anesthetist, has gained her freedom from the pumping device for her heart. Vicky, who loves to bake, is now free to sample her goodies, to live like Paco's cousin Ramón outside the confines of diabetes. For the first time, Ashley can take a deep breath with lungs her doctors describe as "pristine." Within two weeks, she was trying to run. By summer, she was riding a bike, swimming, skating and playing tennis.

"I was just so excited I could breathe," she said. "I had these new lungs and I just wanted to push myself."

Ashley calls Alexis her "best friend," and they have scheduled speaking engagements together on behalf of Gift of Life. They keep in close contact with Meghan. And Vicky, a mother of two sons, said she considers the three girls "the daughters I never had."

They all will attend Ashley and Jesse's wedding June 25.

"I don't want to put it off because you don't know the future," said Ashley, who still has cystic fibrosis and is now diabetic as a result of one of the immunosuppressant medications she is taking. "That's something I've known ever since I was little."

Alexis, who keeps in touch with Alex weekly, had a dream not long after her heart transplant in which she was sleeping in Paco's and Sonia's house when she heard a baby crying. It was the middle of the night and Alexis picked up the child to console her, patted her on the back and said, 'It's OK, Gigi. I'm here.'"

At the time, she did not know that the correct spelling of Paco's daughter was Ginette with a 'G' and not Jeanette as she had seen it spelled. She did not know that the baby's nickname was "Gigi." But what struck Alexis was the way she picked up the baby, how she spoke to her.

"I was talking in a way a father or parent would say it to their own child, and she stopped crying," she said. "It was just like God was talking to me and I was speaking for Paco."

Meghan feels closest to Paco when she is in the hospital. Since the transplant, she has had rejection problems and a continuing battle with neurofibromatosis.

"When I'm really ill, I just think, 'Come on, Paco, work with me here,'" she said. "I think that we're partners, doing this thing together. And I'll kind of rub my liver, and I'll say, 'Come on, Paco … let's get through this. I want to get out and live my life.'"

Vicky has a picture of Paco on her refrigerator, so she can look at him every day.

For some of the recipients, there are occasional feelings of guilt.

"It's really difficult to think that he had to essentially die so that I could live," Meghan said. "The fact that he can't share moments with his family, with his child, with his wife, like I can."


Shortly after Paco died, A.J. Rodriguez, Alex's then-13-year-old son, went to his grandfather and asked whether he could train him to box.

"No, son," Evaristo replied, "I can't. I can't train you."

"But why?" the boy asked. "I want to learn properly and do things right."

"No," Evaristo said. "I can't help you now. I don't want to go through what I did again. I don't want this to happen to me ever again with anyone else."

Boxing, once his greatest love and his greatest gift to his three boys, tore a hole in the heart of Evaristo Rodriguez.

"I don't want to know much about boxing anymore," he said late last year. "I've been told to not be upset at boxing. 'Don't be mad at boxing,' they say. 'These things happen,' they say. 'Don't be mad at boxing because it was your passion.' … But I'm not going back."

No one, not even the family, blames anyone associated with the fight, especially Paco's opponent Teon Kennedy, whom the Rodriguez family received graciously at the hospital afterward.

Did Paco truly understand the risks involved?

"We all know the risks," Hernandez said. "Any man that puts on the gloves knows the risks. I see a lot of guys that get hit and they'll say, 'That ain't nothing.' Well, that's bull. Any time you get hit, you feel the shots. …"

"You go home, you toss and turn all night 'cause you can't sleep. You go to eat, the minute you open your mouth you can feel muscle pain in your jaw. You rub your forehead, you can feel the knuckle. You get up in the morning and look in the mirror, and you see. Being a fighter, you're always in pain, you're always fighting sore. It's part of the game.

"You just don't ever think it's gonna happen to you."


A few weeks ago, a friend who used to box with the Rodriguez boys and had been stationed in Iraq asked Alex to go with him to visit Paco's graveside. Evaristo went, too. The subject of boxing and the upcoming Illinois Golden Gloves championship came up.

"'You know, what I said about A.J. years ago is still true,'" Evaristo told Alex. "'He has a real good right hand. He will be a national champ.'"

Alex looked over at his father to make sure he had heard him correctly.

"Let's continue training," Evaristo said.

So, three Rodriguez men are in the gym again.

Alex has also decided to return to the sport he loved as a child but had to quit when he was 12. He couldn't bear to stay away.

"I was living my fighter's dream through my brother," he said, "and it's something, for whatever reason, I have to do. … Even if I get my ass knocked out of the ring, it's cool because we've come back to the game we love."

Now 15, A.J. won't compete until next year's Golden Gloves, when his father and grandfather think he will be ready. At 35, Alex will fight in the pro ranks as a senior bantamweight. He's shooting for his first bout in September.

Alexis has promised she will be there.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. She can be reached at MIsaacson@espnchicago.com.