Robert Sanchez and Felix Aponte had a lot in common, including Sing Sing and bad luck. So when Robert needed a kidney, it seemed like a chance to save both their lives. Until bad luck struck again.
New York | November 15, 2009
ROBERT SANCHEZ BEGAN TO SUSPECT something was wrong in the fall of 2005. He could no longer make it up to his fifth-floor walk-up without stopping on the stairs to rest. His body felt bloated; his face looked puffy. At night, he had headaches so severe they woke him up. A friend drove him to Mount Sinai, and there, in the emergency room, behind a pulled curtain, a doctor delivered the news: His kidneys were failing.
Luck had always seemed to elude Rob. When he was 15, his father had died of a heroin overdose. At 17, he had been hit by a car, broke both legs, and missed nearly a semester of school. And then, at 19, he was arrested after walking out of a crack spot in Harlem, where he’d worked for a week translating for Dominican dealers. Though he’d never been arrested before, a judge sentenced him to fifteen to life under the old Rockefeller drug laws.
He spent the next fifteen years in prison, much of it at Sing Sing. By the fall of 2005, he was 37 years old, had been out of prison for three years, and was about to finish his time on parole. For the first time since he’d been a teenager, he was going to be completely free. Then he learned he had an aggressive form of kidney disease, and suddenly it seemed he might not have too many years left to enjoy.
THOUSANDS OF MEN AND WOMEN leave prisons upstate every year and return to New York City. In 2001, this exodus included 20-year-old Felix Aponte, who’d just finished a three-year sentence for peddling crack. For as long as he could remember, he’d been getting into trouble. As a child, he’d cycled in and out of juvenile jail. By 15, he was overseeing a five-man heroin-and-crack operation on First Avenue. He broke so many rules while in state prison that he spent most of his time in solitary confinement.
Back on the outside, Felix reverted to his old ways: hanging out in bars, drinking beer for hours on end, getting into fights. “My whole mind-set was messed up,” he says. “I was very rebellious, very angry.” For him, prison had seemed like a rite of passage: His father had gone to federal prison for selling drugs, and as a child, Felix had made regular trips to Attica to visit an uncle locked up for murder.
Felix hoped to get his own life on a better track, but how to accomplish this was something of a mystery to him. He’d never held a job for long, stopped going to school at age 16, and hadn’t even been able to read until he taught himself in prison. In early 2002, a cousin told him about an organization in East Harlem called STRIVE that helps people get jobs.
One day Felix walked in and met with a counselor, who revealed that he too had recently left prison. There were other similarities: They were both Puerto Rican and had both grown up in the projects—Felix on the Lower East Side, the counselor in East Harlem. Felix didn’t trust too many people, but he immediately liked the counselor, who was thirteen years older. “We clicked,” he says. The counselor’s name was Rob Sanchez.
Rob had landed this job less than three weeks after walking out of prison. He’d made good use of his fifteen years away. In prison, he had earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s. He’d developed a talent for writing poetry, too; fellow inmates dubbed him “the poet laureate of Sing Sing.” Now, at STRIVE, he tried to keep other men from repeating his own mistakes.
He was so devoted to his job that he made himself available 24/7; clients called him at all hours. Soon Felix joined his caseload—and called whenever he felt tempted to do something wrong. “Do you want to go back to prison?” Rob would ask. “You’ll be alive, you’ll be breathing, but you’ll be dead to the world.”
After giving Felix advice for nearly three years, Rob suddenly stopped hearing from him altogether. He had a feeling he knew where Felix was: back on Rikers Island.
WITH SOME 7,000 PEOPLE on the waiting list for a kidney in New York State, it can take six or seven years—or longer—to find a donor. And so Rob did what everyone does: He took a hard look at his family and friends. Surveying his options, he realized he didn’t have too many. His mother, who had once worked as a seamstress, now had a nasty drinking habit and suffered from cirrhosis. His sister had been a beautiful 16-year-old when he left her; now she was a drug addict. And his other sister, perhaps the most obvious candidate, never offered, and he never asked.
Over the months, his bad luck continued. He lost his apartment in Harlem after construction next door created cracks in his building’s exterior. He moved in with his mother in the Bronx but found he couldn’t stay long; it was too upsetting to watch her self-destruct day after day, liquor bottle in hand. And all the while, his own health was deteriorating.
Being homeless only added to the stress. He spent nights stretched out on a friend’s sofa or squatting in an abandoned apartment inside his old building. Though he still reported to work every day, he found it increasingly hard to muster the empathy necessary to do any counseling. Six years after he started at STRIVE, he quit.
ROB’S HUNCH HAD BEEN CORRECT: Felix had indeed been arrested again. On New Year’s Eve 2005, he’d stabbed a bouncer during an argument at a club on the Lower East Side. That night cost him nearly three years of freedom. By the time he got out at the end of 2007, he was 26 years old. Moving to a different state, away from his old contacts, seemed the best strategy for staying out of trouble—and so Felix took off for Florida.
While sifting through old papers in early 2008, he came across Rob’s cell number. They hadn’t spoken since before Felix got locked up.
“Who is this?” Rob said.
“It’s me! Felix!”
He explained his long silence: He’d been in Sing Sing, moved to Miami, and now desperately needed a job. To Rob, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t heard from Felix in three years. Once somebody was his client, he was a client for life. Rob tracked down the name of a friend of a friend who ran a used-car lot in Florida, and he told Felix to go see him.
By now, Rob was 39 and had been contending with kidney disease for more than two years. After one horrific year, he’d finally begun to piece his life back together, securing both a new job and an apartment. He filled Felix in on his health problems. Every time they spoke, Felix asked the same question: “Have you found anyone to donate a kidney yet?”
One day, when Rob revealed he still didn’t have a donor, Felix said in a casual, offhand way, “Yo, I’ll give you one.”
“Are you for real?” Rob asked. “Don’t be goofing around.”
“I’m dead serious.”
Felix hadn’t told Rob, but he had been researching kidney donation on the Internet for weeks. It took a while for Rob to digest Felix’s offer, and at first he was not altogether certain it was a good idea. “We’re not related, you’re young, and you’re full of strife,” Rob said. “I don’t want to add to what you’re going through now.”
But Felix was resolute. When Rob asked why he wanted to give him a kidney, Felix told him: “For the first time in my life, I want to do something right.”
BEFORE LONG, Felix and Rob were roommates. Rob was now working as the director of Diligent Dads, a fatherhood program run by the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. And he had a one-bedroom apartment, which he shared with a black cocker spaniel named Sissy, in a doorman building on the Grand Concourse. The plan was for Felix to crash on his sofa while he looked for a job—and while Rob looked for a hospital that would do the transplant.
Three days a week, Rob left at 5:30 a.m. to go to dialysis, then spent the next three and a half hours hooked up to a machine that cleaned his blood. Before dialysis, he was bloated like a balloon, ten pounds over his usual weight. Afterward, he was so wiped out that he had to lie down before doing anything else. He’d allow himself just twenty minutes in bed, then pull on his work clothes and head off to his job.
At first Rob liked having Felix around. Some days Felix would cook dinner, and when Rob was too weak to move, Felix would help him into bed. But there were plenty of spats, too. One night Rob threw a party, and Felix got so drunk—and so obnoxious—that Rob tossed him out. At 5 a.m., Rob heard the buzzer, and there was Felix in his doorway, sporting a black eye, mumbling something about getting jumped by a bunch of guys in Times Square. Rob laughed and let him back in.
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 NewYork-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 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.”
According to Johanna, Felix’s incident had been an accident. He was backing up her minivan in a parking lot when a teenager rode his bicycle behind them. Suddenly, a man ran up, banged on the minivan, and started hollering at them, accusing Felix of trying to hit the kid. To stop the argument from escalating, Johanna shouted, “We’ve gotta get out of here now!” Felix hit the accelerator—he says he thought the vehicle was in reverse, but it was in drive—and he struck a woman walking by. “It’s not Felix’s fault,” Johanna says. “He hit the lady by mistake.”
Nevertheless, the odds were stacked against Felix, since he already had one violent felony on his record. And now, on top of everything else, he’d let down Rob—exactly the fate he’d been trying to avoid. And to Rob, it seemed like he was right back where he’d started. Months of appointments and tests and interviews at two hospitals—with nothing to show for it. He knew that if Felix was found guilty, he would be gone for a long time—too long for Rob to wait.
SIX DAYS AFTER HIS ARREST, Felix was still locked up. On the morning of April 15, he found himself inside a holding cell at Manhattan Criminal Court, waiting to appear before a judge. All morning long, defendants paraded through courtroom 219, each standing before the judge for just a minute or two. Shortly before noon, an officer led in Felix, his wrists cuffed behind his back.
In a hushed conversation at the judge’s bench, a court-appointed lawyer named Cory Forman tried to convey the urgency of the situation. But there would be no miracles today: A few minutes later, a guard whisked Felix back to a holding cell. At Forman’s request, however, the judge did order the Department of Correction to bring Felix to Mount Sinai for his final appointment a few days later—and the transplant operation the week after.
It was an accomplishment of sorts, but from the lawyer’s point of view, it was no guarantee: You couldn’t always count on the city’s guards to get an inmate to the right place at the right time. The best way to ensure that Felix showed up at the hospital was to get him out of jail altogether. The next day, Felix’s lawyer asked another judge to lower the bail. This is typically a tough fight to win, but in this case the district attorney’s office gave its approval, and a judge dropped the bail to $3,000.
To free Felix, Johanna figured out that she needed to put down $1,200 for a $3,000 bond. She collected $600 from Rob, $200 from Felix’s mom, and she covered the rest—$280 from her unemployment check and $120 in overdraft from her bank account. At 3:30 p.m. on April 17, after eight nights in jail, Felix staggered down the courthouse steps, looking bleary-eyed and slightly stunned. Partly it was the lack of sleep—he’d gotten on a bus at 4 a.m. to come to court—but partly, it seemed, he couldn’t quite believe he was free. His decision to give Rob a kidney had rescued him from Rikers, at least for now. And as he explained to Johanna, “I never in my life heard a judge say good luck.”
FELIX HAD MISSED one hospital appointment while he was locked up, forcing Rob to reveal to Mount Sinai where he was. But when they both showed up on April 21 for their final visit, nobody seemed to hold this against them. Here they were “Mr. Aponte” and “Mr. Sanchez,” two patients, a donor and a recipient. Rob had on his usual work attire: corduroy suit jacket, long-sleeved dress shirt, dark jeans, leather belt. Felix wore a Plaxico Burress jersey, prison tattoos visible on both arms.
In the exam room, Rob climbed onto the table; Felix settled into a chair by his side. Mark L. Sturdevant, a transplant surgeon, spoke for an hour about what the operations would entail. Then he asked Rob to step outside so he could talk to Felix alone.
To Felix, he gave the standard it’s-not-too-late-to-get-out-of-this spiel: “Over this coming weekend, if things just don’t feel right, if you start getting cold feet … call me,” he said. “I can make sure that you can step back, have some time, or like I said, just not do it, and everything will be fine.”
“No. I’m good.”
“Nobody ever expects people to do this. This is something that is, you know, very heroic to do. And I want to make sure that you know that you can confide in me, and I can medically unclear you, so to speak.” In other words, he could provide some cover so Felix could back out while trying to keep his friendship with Rob intact.
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.”