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The Rodriguez family finds hope amid despair as boxer's organs bolster recipients

Francisco "Paco" Rodriguez died from injuries suffered in a boxing match last November. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff Photographer)
Francisco "Paco" Rodriguez died from injuries suffered in a boxing match last November. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff Photographer)Read more

Life goes on: The Rodriguez family finds hope amid despair as boxer's organs bolster recipients

First of two parts

CHICAGO - Quietly, Sonia Rodriguez got out of bed and padded into the other room, where the evening before she had laid out her clothes for work. It was Wednesday, 6:30 a.m., and her husband Paco was still asleep, the gray light of a cold Chicago dawn beginning to seep through the windows of the small house that the couple and their baby daughter shared with his parents. Sonia slipped into the outfit that she had picked out, brushed her hair and stopped back in the bedroom to look in on Ginette, who slept in the crib that was wedged against the wall. Sweeping up her purse, she glanced over at Paco and told herself she would phone him when he arrived later that day in Philadelphia. But as she stepped out the door he called to her.

"Oh?" he said, blinking the sleep from his eyes. "Are you leaving?"

She looked over her shoulder and said softly, "Yeah."

"Come here," Paco told her. Sonia walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. He reached up, drew her into his arms and said, "I want to say goodbye."

Goodbyes were not easy for them. In the 5 years they had been together, they seldom had been apart. Even when they were still dating, he would stop by and see her at the end of the day, if only for an hour or so just to talk. But Sonia had not chosen to accompany her 25-year-old husband to Philadelphia, where that Friday evening Paco had a 12-round bout scheduled at the Blue Horizon with Teon Kennedy for the vacant United States Boxing Association super bantamweight crown. Boxing had become a sport that Sonia looked upon with equal portions of acceptance and disdain. She accepted it because of the passion Paco had for it, and even now says that boxing was who he was. And yet part of her held it in disdain and she had stopped attending his bouts because of it, unable to cope with the queasiness that would send her fleeing from her ringside seat whenever Paco would engage an opponent in a toe-to-toe exchange. So when he asked her if she would like to come along to Philadelphia, he was not surprised when she smiled and told him, "No, you go. But hurry back to me." And he told her he would, adding as always, "I promise you."

An odd feeling had come over her in the weeks leading up to his departure that Wednesday. But she did not share it with Paco. Knowing how he was, she feared that it would only worry him - and he had been worried enough. In fact, he had been so overcome with anxiety that he was sure at one point that he was in the throes of cardiac arrest. At the emergency room, doctors told him he had had a panic attack, which Sonia ascribed to the pressure Paco had been under due to the approaching Kennedy bout. "Babe," he would remind her, "it's just 3 weeks away . . . it's just 2 weeks away . . . it's just a week away." But as excited as he appeared, he did not seem to be himself, and there was part of her that did not want to let go of him. While she told herself as he held her in his arms that morning that he would be back on Saturday, she would remember a conversation they had had a few days before, how engulfed it had been by this eerie edginess.

"What am I going to do without you?" he told her. "I am going to miss you so much."

"Be calm," she said. "Go over there and do what you have to do. And enjoy it."

"You are going to be very proud of me," he said. "This is going to really help us in the future. You and the baby and I are always going to be OK."

Every Sunday, they go to the Woodlawn Park Cemetery. As 1-year-old Ginette plays amid the flowers that have been placed by the headstone, Sonia sits on the grass and ponders the tragic event that swept through their lives: One year ago this week, her beloved husband was lowered into the earth, the victim of head blows he received during his bout with Kennedy. For Sonia, 25, no words can adequately express the ache that dwells in her heart, which only becomes heavier when she thinks of Ginette and the journey that stands before them. When her daughter asks her one day what her dad was like, Sonia will explain to her that he was a hero, not for what he had accomplished in the ring but because he was a courageous man who loved them both and who helped prolong the lives of his uncle - and four people who were strangers to him. Francisco "Paco" Rodriguez was an organ donor.

Great need exists for organs, and it increases year by year: There were 109,138 people on the waiting list at the end of October, and 6,504 in the local Gift of Life Donor Program area, which includes Eastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware. At the very moment that Paco was pronounced dead at Hahnemann University Hospital - Sunday, Nov. 22, at 7:42 p.m. - there were five people who were waging battles with grave health conditions as bravely as he himself had ever engaged an opponent in the ring. One of them was his uncle in Chicago, Ramon Tejeda, who received a kidney in what is referred to as a "directed donation." Four others were people who had never heard of Paco before his organs saved their lives: Alexis Sloan, of Norristown, received his heart; Ashley Owens, of Spring City in Chester County, received both his lungs; Meghan Kingsley, of Gaithersburg, Md., received his liver; and Vicky Davis, of Clifford Township in Susquehanna County, received his other kidney and his pancreas. While Sonia says that Paco had not legally designated himself as an organ donor, she signed the consent form because it had been a subject the two of them had discussed.

"Francisco was always very giving and I did not want his death to stop that," says Sonia, seated at the dining-room table with her in-laws. "We had talked it over and he had told me that it was something that he wanted to do. When they asked me if it was something we would like to do, I remember thinking: 'What if it were Francisco that was hanging between life and death, if he had been the one who had needed someone to be so giving?' I would have asked someone, 'Please, just do it. You are giving someone a chance at life.' "

Inside the doorway of the house, a small shrine has been set up in memory of Paco: a photograph of him adorned with a halo and angel wings; shelves with vases of white flowers; and a statuette of the Blessed Mother draped with rosary beads. Someone lights the candles at the base of it each day, the glow from which throws shadows across the bowed head of the porcelain Mary. Even a year later, the house remains a place of mourning, steeped in an unwillingness to let go. In a back room, the wall is covered with an inventory of the career that came to a sudden end that evening at the Blue Horizon. Wherever the eye turns there are boxing posters, gloves and trunks and - up on hangers, carefully preserved beneath plastic - are colorful robes with "El Nino Azteka" scripted on the back. That was how he billed himself: "Kid Aztec." Elsewhere, the bedroom he shared with Sonia and Ginette remains just the same as it was when she said goodbye to him. The bureau is cluttered with beauty products; the bed is strewn with a tangle of sheets; and the crib still sits against the wall near a crucifix.

Gone is the serene smile that beamed from Sonia in her wedding pictures. In place of it are downcast eyes. While she speaks with clarity and precision, her voice has a quality that seems on the verge of shattering, as if it were a piece of fine china toppled over by the tail of a prowling house cat. She does not cry and yet one can see that she has, that there have been days that have been long and unbearable. Moving out of the house and in with her sister has provided her with some support, but she says there is "no way to explain how injured I feel." But she keeps herself busy and that has helped. There is Ginette and a job she has as a legal assistant and the accounting degree she is pursuing at DePaul University. And yet she has still not overcome the feeling that there is this hole in her heart, and she wonders to herself if it is ever going to heal. Sonia says, "You have to understand: He was the boy I had always dreamed of."

Even as she continues to grieve, Sonia has found some solace in the fact that her husband still lives on - in Ginette but also in the rejuvenated lives of the organ recipients. In an unexpected way, she has come to feel a certain bond with them, as if they were part of her extended family. On days when the weight of her loss bears down upon her, it reassures her to know that there are people who had suffered for so long who now have the chance to live life to the fullest because of Paco. Gradually, it occurred to her that she would like to contact them, if only to let them know who her husband was. And that with them would always be a piece of the love she has for him.

There is an irony here. Because long before boxing killed Paco, it very well might have saved him. As a boy growing up in the Logan Square section of Chicago, an area settled by a dense Hispanic population, he was surrounded by the presence of gang activity. The community has calmed down since then, but when Paco was 12, shots came through the front window, shattered the television set and embedded in the wall. Apparently, someone had fired from a speeding car at someone else who had been running away down the sidewalk. No one inside the Rodriguez home was injured. But it was the type of trouble that Evaristo Sr. had always feared, which is why he told his boys: "Listen, you get home from school, you do your homework, get your stuff together and we'll go to the gym."

The old man had been a fighter himself, a journeyman welterweight who always seemed called upon by promoters on short notice to fill out a card. Poor, he began boxing in Guadalajara, Mexico, came to Chicago as an illegal in 1979 and won just one of his seven bouts in the United States. To support his wife, Maria, and their three children - which included Alejandro (Alex) and Evaristo Jr. (Tito) - he found work as a busboy and later in a tool factory. While his boxing career ended in 1983, he still did some sparring here and there and passed along his passion for the sport to his sons. It was a way for them to keep out of trouble, yes, but the ring always has been looked upon in Latino culture as a place of honor, where boys prove themselves as men and, if they are good enough, ascend out of poverty into something better. Tito won the National Golden Gloves championship at age 17 in 1997 and is still considered one of the finest amateur boxers ever to come out of Chicago. But he did not turn pro because of a conflict with Evaristo Sr. and in the years that followed, it would become Paco who would carry on the dreams that had been thwarted in the others.

Evaristo Sr. could see there was an urgency building in Paco. While Evaristo Sr. says he had been undisciplined as a boy, choosing to stay home and play instead of applying himself at the gym, Paco seemed animated by the success that Tito enjoyed. By the age of 17, Paco would win a National Golden Gloves championship, five local titles and a berth in the 2004 United States Olympic Trials. Overall, he won 76 of his 82 amateur bouts. With that solid background, he turned pro in January 2005 and emerged as a crowd favorite at the Aragon Ballroom and Cicero Stadium, the two Chicago-area boxing venues where he became a regular. Kid Aztec would bob up and down to the beat of a Mexican band as his entourage ushered him to the ring. Matchmaker Jerry Alfano says, "I tried to bring him up gradually by placing him with tougher and tougher opponents, so that we were building not just a record but a fighter." While Paco had suffered losses in two of his 16 fights, Alfano says that "everything was going pretty well."

Sonia stopped attending his bouts when friends began teasing her about how she would get up and run to the bathroom whenever the action heated up. But it just tore her up inside to see Paco in the ring, so she stayed away and waited for him to call from his dressing room with good news. They would then either go out to eat or swing by the emergency room, where Paco would have his face stitched up. When they would get home, she would hold ice on his bruises to ease the swelling. Two weeks before they exchanged vows at Our Lady of Grace Church, he was cut over both eyelids. Concerned how he would look on their wedding day - and in the pictures! - Sonia would have preferred that he not take the bout. "See, I told you," Sonia said when she saw his face. But Francisco told her the cuts would heal. And they did. No bride could have asked for a more handsome groom that August day in 2008. While they had been married in a civil ceremony 2 years before, Paco had promised her that one day she would have the church wedding she had always dreamed of. Paco had set aside some of the earnings from his bouts. They even had enough to go to Disney World for 10 days.

Inactivity became a problem for Francisco. Managed by Alex and trained by Evaristo Sr. and Tito, he turned down bouts in the Chicago area due to what Alfano says was a degree of overprotectiveness by his family; Tito says that the issue had more to do with the inability of Alfano to produce attractive enough purses. Whatever the case, Paco had had just one bout in the 15 months prior to his Philadelphia trip and had been working as a courier for a chiropractor. Sonia encouraged him to go back to school, which he would at Wright College, but only briefly. He had spoken to her of perhaps becoming a chef. When Ginette was born in August 2009, Evaristo Sr. even seemed to be of the belief that he should move on to something else. Paco told him, "Dad, you opened all these doors for me and now you want to close them?" Evaristo Sr. told him he would never do that. But whatever obstacles stood before him seemed to fall away when Alfano told him of an opportunity that had come up in Philadelphia.

On paper, it seemed like a good fight: Paco and Kennedy both had had strong amateur pedigrees. In fact, Paco had beaten Kennedy as an amateur. "It was a crossroads bout for both of them," says Alfano, who served as the booking agent for Blue Horizon promoter J Russell Peltz. The winner would be assured a Top 10 world ranking by the International Boxing Federation. While the $6,500 he would earn for the Kennedy bout was above par for a non-televised bout, Paco could expect that his earning power would increase if he beat Kennedy, who had emerged as a promising pro on the Philadelphia scene. But even as Paco appeared to be on the upswing professionally, he seemed to be struggling with something profound.

Sonia could sense that he was unraveling. Two weeks before the Blue Horizon bout, she found him in their bedroom with his hands braced on the crib, gulping for air and unable to catch his breath. She drove him to the emergency room at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. On the way there, he had told her he was scared that he was going to die. The doctors diagnosed it as a panic attack, so she let it go at that. But a week later, he was once again in the grip of what Sonia says he called "this weird feeling." He and Sonia were taking Ginette to a well-baby checkup when Paco stopped in his tracks, turned to her and said: "Babe, I just have this feeling that I am going to die before you." Sonia looked at him and said, "Why would you say that?" The odd moment passed, yet he asked her something that Sunday at church that surprised her, something that he had never asked her before.

He turned to her and said: "Do you think the priest will bless me?"

Sonia tossed in her sleep. It had been an anxious night, full of confusion. The bout had not gone well: Paco had been stopped by Kennedy in the 10th round. But when Sonia did not hear from him and he had not picked up his cell phone when she called, she began to grow worried. To keep her calm, her brother-in-law, Alex, who had remained in Chicago, told her that Paco was at a hospital having some cuts treated. The explanation gnawed at her: He still would have called. Sonia settled down Ginette and went to bed, only to be stirred awake at 3 a.m. that Saturday morning by the sound of the door bell ringing. Excitedly, she thought: Francisco! He took an early plane back! But when she looked through her doorway into the living room she saw Alex standing with her sister Celia. Both of them wore grave expressions.

Sonia got up.

Joining her was her mother-in-law, Maria.

"You know Paco is in the hospital," Alex began. "He has been badly injured. He hurt his head. We are not sure what is going on, but he is not doing very well."

All Sonia would remember is that she and Maria fell to the floor sobbing. In the fog that enveloped her, she thought back to the conversation she had with Paco the previous evening, before the bout. It was the last time they would speak. She was driving home from the job she then had at a bank. It was just small talk - how the baby was doing and so on - but they never got around to their prayer. They always said one before he stepped into the ring. But Paco knew she was behind the wheel and told her he would call her back if time permitted. When she did not hear from him, she looked at the clock - 9:30 in Philadelphia, an hour earlier in Chicago - and began counting down the minutes. Quietly, she told herself as the evening progressed: Round 1 has to be over . . . Round 2 has to be over . . . To occupy herself, she played with Ginette and with her nephew. And she looked again at the clock.

For the 799 fans who showed up at the Blue Horizon that evening, it was a bout that proved to be just what Peltz had envisioned: "A terrific fight" not just on paper but in the ring. Paco was twice wobbled by Kennedy in the first round, but came back in the second throwing some big bombs of his own. The exchanges were fierce. Correctly, Peltz would say that by the end of Round 8, "the fight was up for grabs." But Kennedy won the ninth round decisively and the hard head and body shots he had connected with seemed to wear down Paco. Between the ninth and 10th rounds, the ring physician spoke with him and cleared him to continue. Twice in the 10th round Paco slipped to the canvas from exhaustion. When Francisco reeled into the ropes from a combination, referee Benjy Estevez waded in and stopped the bout at 1:52 of the round. And Paco labored back to his corner.

Scrambling up through the ropes to join him were Evaristo Sr., Tito and cut man George Hernandez. Someone placed a stool under him and Paco sat down. As the ring physician, Jonathan Levyn, asked him some questions and peered into his eyes, Tito began cutting off the gloves. Evaristo Sr. looked on with apprehension. Paco had told him that his head hurt and that he was feeling sleepy. Evaristo said they would get him some aspirin later. When the ring physician stepped away, Tito asked someone to hand him an ice bag. Paco inhaled deep breaths as Tito sponged cold water on his back. Tito says that Paco became incoherent and he called for Levyn to come back. But Paco slipped into unconsciousness. EMS personnel strapped him to a stretcher and lowered him from the ring. As they passed through the crowd, Jason Barrett, a heavyweight who had appeared on the card, looked over at Paco and told local matchmaker Zac Pomilio: "Man, that guy looks dead."

Crazy with worry, Sonia boarded a 6 a.m. flight to Philadelphia. With her were Maria, Alex, her sister Lorena Ramirez and her brother-in-law Noe Ramirez. Tito picked them up at the airport and drove them to Hahnemann, where Sonia would be stunned by what she saw. Paco had a breathing tube attached to him, and bandages encased his head. A craniotomy had been performed on him to alleviate the swelling inside his skull, but he was in "extremely critical" condition. Sonia would say later that she still held out hope, even as the doctors who spoke to her on Saturday evening attempted to prepare her for the inevitable. On Sunday morning, he began to show signs that he was beginning to become herniated. As the brain continued to swell, it pressed up against the hard shell of the skull. With nowhere to go, it collapsed and shut off blood to itself, which produced brain death. Examinations by two physicians 6 hours apart would officially confirm that: The first occurred at 1:45 p.m., the second at 7:42 p.m. It was at the latter that Paco was pronounced dead.

Sonia held the hand of the boy she always dreamed of that Sunday and wondered how she could ever let go of it. Vaguely, she became aware of visitors who stopped by the hospital, which included Kennedy and his father, Ernest. Tentatively, Kennedy stepped forward and offered his condolences. At the 3rd Annual Briscoe Awards in October, where his bout with Paco was honored as the "2009 Philly Fight of the Year," he would say impassively: "It could have been me." Ernest, a former boxer himself, knew only too well that it could have been. As he stood in the hospital and looked over at Sonia, he found himself reversing the characters in the tragedy before him. It was his son who was lying there. It was his family who stood at the bedside. He wondered: What would I do? What could I say? Gently, he told Sonia how sorry he was, but she was somewhere far away, thinking: Boxing is not even a sport. I hate it.

But there was still something to do that day, even if in her grief it seemed to Sonia to be so unreal. Given that Paco had been on a ventilator and had suffered a devastating neurological event, he was a candidate to become an organ donor. By 1998 law, hospitals in the United States are required to inform their area Organ Procurement Organization of any person who is at or near death. According to president and CEO Howard Nathan, the Gift of Life Donor Program receives 48,000 such calls each year. Of the 3,000 patients who are on a ventilator - which allows the organs to continue working until they can be recovered for transplant - only 439 last year ended up being donors. In the case of Paco, Hahnemann placed a referral call to GOL at 1:42 a.m. Saturday and updated them at 9 a.m. Sunday when his neurological status deteriorated. GOL transplant coordinator Janet Andrews came to the hospital and followed events as they unfolded. When Paco was pronounced dead, she introduced herself to the Rodriguez family, arranged at their request for a priest to come by and at 10:30 p.m. invited Sonia and Alex to sit down with her in a conference room.

Someone had handed Sonia a program from the Blue Horizon card with Paco pictured on the cover. When she sat down, Sonia had flipped it across the table in disgust. Having collected preliminary information that Paco was a viable potential donor, Andrews asked Sonia and Alex if they had considered the possibility of organ or tissue donation. Sonia told her yes, but asked to have Evaristo Sr., Maria and Tito step into the room. When Tito appeared uncertain, Sonia told him that it was something that she and Paco had talked over at one point and he had told her it was something he wanted to do. Maria said she had a cousin who was on the waiting list for a kidney and asked if he could be accommodated. Told by Andrews that he could, the family agreed.

Sonia signed the consent form at 11:30 p.m. And with the stroke of a pen, five lives were forever changed.

It was hard to know where to begin. Sonia remembered when they had first met. Tito was dating her sister and Paco had told him, "There has to be a Rosales girl for me." But when they dropped by to pick up Sonia from the job she then held at Target, Paco sat in the back seat of the car and would not say a word; they had just gotten back from an evening out bowling. Sonia would remember how shy Paco was, and how embarrassed he was when Tito looked over his shoulder and teased him. But when her sister later asked her if she would like to go dancing with him, she said yes and they would never again be apart.

Somehow it had become vital to Sonia in the year that has passed that the organ recipients know who Paco was, and how precious he had been to her. Increasingly, she began to wonder how they were faring, if the organs they had received had helped them regain their health. In her inconsolable grief, Sonia found it was healing to her to imagine that they had, that the piece of Paco that lived on in them would allow them to find some happiness. Given that anonymity is guarded and some recipients can be uneasy with contact with the donor family, Sonia was instructed to send a letter through GOL and told that it would be forwarded to any of the recipients who would welcome hearing from her. Sonia hoped that one day they would even be able to meet.

So one day she sat down and began writing, in part: "Dear Recipient: My name is Sonia Rodriguez, the proud wife of Francisco Rodriguez . . . 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 . . . We shared five years together, the best five years of my life, as he made me the happiest woman in the world . . . We want you to know that you are always in our thoughts and prayers and sincerely hope that you are doing well. Hope to hear from you soon."

She then slipped a picture inside the envelope of Paco. And added: "By the way, he was very handsome." *