ESPN unites widow of boxer Paco Rodriguez with his organ recipients

Posted: April 19, 2011

When Francisco "Paco" Rodriguez died of head injuries in a 2009 bout at the Blue Horizon, his wife Sonia signed an authorization form that permitted seven of his organs to be used for transplants. Ultimately, that courageous stroke of a pen by a grieving widow saved the lives of five people.

With the help the Philadelphia-based Gift of Life Donor Program, Sonia wrote four of the recipients a letter (the fifth had been a family member). In it, she described the abiding love Paco had for her and their baby daughter and said she hoped one day they could meet.

ESPN arranged for that to happen.

Picking up where a two-part series in the Daily News last year left off, the program "E:60" flew the four recipients to Chicago last December to see Sonia and daughter Ginette. The beautifully shot segment will air this evening on ESPN at 7 o'clock, and is timed to coincide with National Donate Life Month, the annual drive by Gift of Life and 57 organ procurement organizations in the United States to encourage people to register as donors.

The "E:60" piece was reported by Jeremy Schaap. The producer was Vin Cannamela.

Paco Rodriguez was stopped by Teon Kennedy in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round bout for the vacant United States Boxing Association super bantamweight championship. When he died 2 days later at Hahnemann University Hospital, five people received his organs, including his uncle, Ramon Tejeda, of Chicago (kidney).

The others were:

* Ashley Owens (double lung), of Spring City, Pa.

* Alexis Sloan (heart), of Norristown.

* Vicky Davis (pancreas and kidney), of Clifford Township, Pa.

* Meghan Kingsley (liver), of Gaithersburg, Md.

"E:60" captured what became a tearful meeting between Sonia and the recipients. In an interview with the Daily News yesterday, Sonia said it was "like a wedding and funeral rolled into one."

"I had mixed feelings," she said. "In one sense, we were there to celebrate the new lease the recipients had on life. But in another sense, I still missed Paco."

"E:60" highlighted the story of Owens, who as a baby was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and was in grave condition before she had her transplant. On the very evening Paco stepped into the ring with Kennedy, Owens was given an engagement ring in her hospital room by her boyfriend, Jesse Quinter. Three days later, Owens was wheeled into surgery to receive two new lungs.

Owens gave Sonia a hug - and a baby blanket she had knitted for Ginette, now nearly 2.

"Sonia saved our lives by giving us this gift," said Owens, who is an aspiring grade school teacher. "And it is something each of us treasures. I think of her every day."

She invited Sonia to her wedding in June.

Sonia said she could not attend - she had booked a trip to Mexico that week. But she has remained in contact with the recipients since the "E:60" shoot and said she plans to do so "forever."

Sonia added that she still has not overcome the grief of losing Paco.

"There are days when life is just miserable without him," she said yesterday. "I think I am still in denial. I cannot believe what happened. But I know that Paco had a purpose in life. Five people who had been suffering for years are now able to experience the same joy of living that he did for 25 years."

Sonia paused and added, "So I just try to think of that."

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