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Blood Brothers

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The surgeon explained that he was going to remove Felix’s left kidney, that Felix should have his labs checked every year, that people have died from this operation. As the doctor was winding down, Felix cut in: “Do you need me to sign off?”

“You’re ready to go, huh? You have no other questions?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

When the doctor handed him the consent form, Felix barely glanced at it before signing.

The surgeon stuck around, talking to both Rob and Felix. When he asked Felix about his history of prior surgeries, Felix mentioned two on his hand, one on his jaw—and Rob added another: “They had to surgically remove my foot out of his ass in 2006.”

“How did that procedure go?”

“It went well. He’s walking a little straighter now.”

“How long have you been friends?”

“Since 2003,” Robert said.

“2001,” Felix said.

“You sound like a married couple who can’t even decide on when you met.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m married to him,” Rob said.

On April 28, Rob’s cell phone rang at 4:30 a.m. “Are you up?” Felix asked. “Don’t be late.” They were supposed to be at the hospital by 5:30; Felix got there at five. By seven, he and Rob were seated in exam rooms next door to one another, each in a paper gown, with bare legs, navy socks, and a plastic I.D. bracelet. On his way into the operating room, Felix stopped in to see Rob. “Thanks, bro,” Rob said, giving him a quick hug. “See you upstairs.” If all went well—if Felix’s kidney looked good, if the doctors didn’t see anything in his abdomen that was infected—then they would start operating on Rob.

Rob’s surgery began soon after, but it didn’t go exactly as planned. Dr. Scott A. Ames put in Felix’s kidney, then released the clamps to allow the blood to flow. The kidney turned pink like it was supposed to, but then it started to show patches of blue. The surgeon wasn’t sure what the problem was. Maybe there was a spasm in the main artery to the kidney? He warmed up the kidney, sprayed some medicine on the artery, and eventually managed to get the blood flowing.

That evening, in the recovery room, Felix was groggy but awake, his thumb on the morphine pump. Turning to Johanna, he asked, “How’s Rob?” Across the room, Rob lay flat on his back, eyes shut, ventilator beside him, breathing tube over his mouth. This was not the recovery the doctors had expected, especially not in someone who was only 41. Though the new kidney seemed to be working, his heart wasn’t pumping well.

Two days later, Rob was still in the recovery room, but at least he was now sitting up in bed and the breathing tube was gone. When Felix came to visit, rolling up in a wheelchair, Rob gave him a halfhearted fist bump. “You’re the man, bro,” Rob said, his voice still raspy from the breathing tube.

Felix planned to go home the next day, but Rob, still too weak to walk, would have to stay behind.

The morning of September 30, 155 days after he gave away his kidney, Felix sat at a defendant’s table inside the courthouse at 111 Centre Street. He kept his hands clasped in front of him, eyes trained down. When the judge asked him if he wished to plead guilty to assault in exchange for a three-year prison term, his jaw tightened. He stayed silent, lips pressed together, struggling to keep his cool.

“Yes, your honor,” he said.

In the end, the decision to plead guilty was a practical one. At first Felix had hoped to go to trial and beat the case. But then in the summer he’d been arrested on an old warrant for another assault, and suddenly the risk of going to trial seemed too great. With one violent felony already on his record, he’d have to do at least seven years in prison if he lost.

The only good news was that the judge agreed to let him remain free for a few months so he could continue to work and support Johanna and their 6-month-old son, Andres. For the first time in his life, at age 28, he actually seemed to be moving in the right direction. With Rob’s help, he’d landed a paid internship at a wallpaper distributor in Queens.

Today, Rob had come down to the courthouse, too. With Felix’s kidney inside him, he felt stronger and more energetic than he had in years. Over breakfast at a diner, Rob advised Felix to make the most of his time behind bars (“You have to come home with your GED; there’s no excuse”) and to start preparing for his life post-prison (“You need to start picturing yourself at the age of 32”). But no matter how much Rob played the role of counselor, this wasn’t an easy conversation. “It hurts me to see you going away,” Rob said, “because you’re my boy.”

And Felix’s misfortune couldn’t help but remind Rob of his own. Back in the late eighties, Rob had been sentenced to fifteen to life in the same building where Felix had just pleaded guilty. The neighborhood triggered such miserable memories that he made a point of never coming down here. Except today. “I’ll do anything for Felix,” he said. “He was there when I needed him most.”


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