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Blood Brothers

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From Rob’s point of view, however, there was a bigger problem: Felix wasn’t looking too hard for a job. Soon, the sight of Felix sprawled on his sofa started to grate. “Here it is, I’m paying $1,200 rent. You’re watching my TV that I pay cable for. And my dog is lying in your lap,” Rob told him. “I’m working hard, busting my ass, and you’re not doing anything.”

Rob wanted Felix out, but how do you kick out the guy who’s promised you a kidney? In the end, a little more than a month after Felix arrived, the situation resolved itself: Felix met a girl and moved in with her. To Rob’s relief, Felix continued to say he wanted to go ahead with the transplant.

In fact, it seemed nothing could dissuade him. Felix’s mother wasn’t happy when she heard about the plan, but he told her, “That’s my friend, Ma. I love my friend. I don’t want him to die.” At times, Felix talked about his decision as a form of payback, a way to thank Rob for all he’d done for him. Asked where he would be if he’d never met Rob, he didn’t hesitate to answer: “I’d be doing a life sentence.”

When you’re an ex-con, everything is more complicated, whether it’s looking for a job or getting a hospital to harvest your organ. At least that’s the way it seemed to Felix. At the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell center, he says he was asked about his criminal record. “What does that have to do with me donating a kidney?” he said. In the end, though, he admitted he’d gone to prison twice. The hospital turned him down.

For its part, the hospital insisted Felix’s criminal record had nothing to do with its decision. Rob was inclined to believed this; he thought the staff had concluded that Felix was not mentally prepared to go through with the operation. But where did this leave him? Was anybody going to approve Felix as a donor? Perhaps he’d be better off just waiting for a kidney from a cadaver.

But Felix insisted he didn’t want to give up. Near the end of 2008, they headed over to Mount Sinai. This time, they had better luck. The hospital approved them, Rob’s health insurance would pay for their surgeries, and a date was set: April 28, 2009.

Rob knew that if Felix was found guilty, he would be gone for a long time— too long for Rob to wait.

Rob dared to imagine life with a new kidney. No more waking up at 5 a.m. for dialysis. No more feeling too weak to walk the dog. Soon he’d be able to leave town without worrying about finding a decent place to get dialysis. But at the same time, Rob knew better than to let himself get too excited. What were the odds that Felix would keep his promise? “I think it’s 70-30,” he said.

Felix insisted he wasn’t having second thoughts, but his life was changing fast. His girlfriend, Johanna Lopez, was pregnant; their baby’s due date was three weeks before the transplant was supposed to take place. And Johanna had just lost her job. Now Felix, Johanna, and her 5-year-old son were all trying to get by on her unemployment check—just $280 a week.

Nevertheless, Felix continued to show up for every hospital appointment. “He hasn’t complained once about it at all,” Johanna said. “He’s really determined to do this, and he’s focused on doing what he has to do to get it done.” Johanna supported Felix’s decision, in part because of how she thought it had already affected him. “He had to change his lifestyle to do this. No drugs. The partying—all of that had to stop,” she says. Unlike most people, she didn’t view the operation as a one-way transaction. “They’re saving each other’s lives, if you ask me.”

Nineteen days before the surgery was scheduled to take place, on the afternoon of April 9, Rob picked up his cell phone and heard Johanna sobbing. The details were fuzzy—something about Felix hitting somebody with a car—but one fact was clear: Felix was in jail. A judge had set his bail at $10,000, far more than Rob or Johanna could afford. Every day, they strategized about how to free Felix, but barring some sort of miracle, it looked like the surgery was off. “The first thing I’m going to do when I see him is put my foot in his ass,” Rob said.

For Rob, whose health was already fragile, Felix’s arrest seemed more than he could bear; some days, he was too exhausted to get out of bed. And Felix’s arrest wasn’t even the worst bit of news he’d gotten lately. Seven weeks earlier, he’d gone to check up on his mother only to discover her dead in her apartment. “I just want to retreat into my little corner and have a normal life,” he said. “Just give me a week of normalcy.”


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