Photo by Michael Ventura

It was late November 2009 when Meghan Kingsley of North Potomac realized that she was dying.

She and her boyfriend of eight months, Kevin Murphy, had gone to Holden Beach, N.C., for the weekend so she could recuperate from a liver problem caused by a clinical drug trial.

But once there, she’d become so weak she could hardly stand. By the time she and Murphy rushed home, she was struggling to breathe.

She was transferred from Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Potomac to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and put on an IV with the hope that her liver would recover. Instead, her lungs began to fill with fluid. She lost control of bodily functions and began to show signs of dementia—an indication that she was experiencing organ failure.

Though her situation was clearly dire, “I don’t think I or anybody in her family knew exactly how sick she was,” recalls Kevin, 31, a Rockville resident and corporate manager for The Palm restaurant in Washington, D.C. “But later we found out that she only had 48 hours to live.”

Confused as she was, Meghan was aware that her life was slipping away.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Francisco “Paco” Rodriguez, a 25-year-old boxer from Chicago, was preparing to fight for the USBA super bantamweight title that would be broadcast on ESPN. The youngest son of Evaristo Rodriguez, a boxer from Guadalajara, Mexico, Paco had literally grown up in the ring with his two brothers. 

“Our dad took us to the gym with him to keep us on the right path and out of the streets,” says Alex Rodriguez, Paco’s oldest brother, who quit boxing and became Paco’s manager.

A small, skinny boy initially uninterested in boxing, Paco gained enthusiasm as he started to win fights. At 13 he won a local tournament, and from that point on, he rarely lost. He was 17 when he won the national Golden Gloves tournament in Las Vegas. By Philadelphia, Paco was ready for the fight that would turn him from amateur to pro.

Fittingly, he and his brother visited the city’s “Rocky” statue, but Alex wouldn’t let Paco run up the steps for fear of injury. Paco had another incentive for caution: He and his wife, Sonia, were the adoring parents of a 5-month-old daughter, Ginette. Sonia, who couldn’t bear to watch her husband get hit, had urged him to quit the ring. But Paco had reassured her that he waTs well-prepared, and that boxing was what he was born to do.

His bout took place on Friday, Nov. 20, 2009, and late into it, turned deadly. Having taken several blows to the head, Paco slipped into a coma after the fight was stopped during the 10th round and was rushed to an emergency room. After several hours of surgery, his fever spiked, and Sonia flew to his bedside. Doctors told her that her husband had no chance of survival. That was when Gift of Life, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that connects organ donors and recipients, contacted the Rodriguez family about donating Paco’s organs.

“Paco wanted to be a hero,” Sonia would later tell an ESPN interviewer. Saving the lives of desperately ill people seemed to be a way she could help him fulfill that wish.

Back in Baltimore, Meghan had been put at the top of the liver transplant list. On the night of Nov. 23, her physician, Dr. Andrew Singer, told her that a perfect match was available, a liver that had belonged to a 25-year-old man. “We could wait and see if you get better,” he said, “but I don’t think you’re going to.”

“At that point I was so sick I couldn’t even comprehend what a transplant was,” Meghan says. “I just wanted everything to stop.” Somehow she managed to sit up. “Let’s do it,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Within minutes she was prepped for surgery.