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Police track down transplant candidate just in time

May 8, 1997

MIAMI (AP) _ Barreling down a crowded highway in the back of a patrol car, Raymond Stillfried’s yearlong wait for a kidney and pancreas transplant became a race against time and traffic without a minute to spare.

The organs, which would give the man severely ill from diabetes a chance at a new life, were located earlier Tuesday. But Stillfried couldn’t be found and the organs were due to go to the next patient on the list if Stillfried didn’t arrive at the hospital before the seven-hour deadline expired.

``He was nervous,″ said Metro-Dade police Sgt. Ozzie Hernandez, who rushed Stillfried to Jackson Memorial Hospital at speeds topping 100 mph. ``They were extremely concerned about the number of people who wouldn’t get out of the way of police cars.″

The high-speed race across town capped a more than six-hour search for Stillfried.

``We weren’t expecting this,″ Stillfried’s wife, Ada, said Wednesday as her husband recuperated from a nearly nine-hour operation. ``We were out shopping ... We thought he had to wait months.″

Stillfried had come to Miami from his native Caracas, Venezuela, for a checkup and to find out where he stood on the organ transplant list at Jackson Memorial.

The news wasn’t good.

During a morning meeting, the 33-year-old father of three was told his wait would be at least a few months longer. Stillfried thought he might die before the organs were found.

``He was depressed,″ said his cousin, Manuel Gonzalez. ``He gets dialysis and he wasn’t doing well. His kidneys were failing quickly.″

Stillfried and his wife left to go shopping. Fifteen minutes later, the hospital called, using the pager that transplant patients are supposed to carry with them.

Stillfried had forgotten his.

Relatives took to the roads, combing store parking lots and restaurants the couple frequented. Gonzalez called rental car companies, eventually finding the agency that had rented the white Mazda 626 to the couple.

A neighbor drove to stores and asked workers to page the Stillfrieds. She also called a radio station and asked them to broadcast an emergency message.

At about 3 p.m., Gonzalez drove to the Metro-Dade police station near his relatives’ home and got them to issue an alert asking officers to search for the white Mazda.

Meanwhile, distressed family members watched time pass.

``We just had to pray and pray and hope that they were found,″ said Maria Luisa Silva, Stillfried’s cousin.

Police, who had been combing the area and stopping white Mazdas, finally caught up with the Stillfrieds at a discount wholesale store in Kendall, a suburb southwest of Miami.

They hustled them to the station, where officers tried in vain to get a helicopter. It was about 7:30 p.m. and only about 30 minutes remained before the organs were to go to someone else.

Hernandez put Stillfried into a squad car and sped for the hospital across the city, usually about 45 minutes away. Mrs. Stillfried, too upset to accompany her husband, followed in another car.

Luckily, traffic wasn’t as heavy as expected. Stillfried arrived about four minutes before doctors would have given the organs to another patient.

Dr. Gaetano Ciancio, one of the transplant surgeons, said the man was lucky to get matched with donated organs in the first place.

``It’s very rare to match the kidney and pancreas,″ he said. ```The organs were here. He wasn’t.″

Stillfried was in good condition Wednesday night, both transplanted organs working, said hospital officials, who declined to release details about the donor.

His near miss was nothing short of miraculous to Hernandez.

``It was a gift from God that we got there on time.″

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