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‘This is the gift of life, mija.’ Years after dad’s death, Ceres teen hears heart go on

Sixteen-year-old Ceres resident Erika Preciado, who was not even 4 when her father was gunned down in a botched carjacking, listened to his heart beat Tuesday. It was in the chest of Ramiro Cruz, a Bakersfield man who received the heart because Erik Gustavo Sandoval Preciado made the choice to follow in his sister’s footsteps and register as an organ donor.

“It’s OK, mija,” Julie Sandoval said to comfort her granddaughter, who began to cry as she used a stethoscope to hear the rhythm. “That’s your daddy’s heart. This is the gift of life, mija, that he chose to do.”

Julie, Erik’s mother, listened the same way when she first visited Bakersfield in late February to meet Ramiro. Erika heard about the experience from her grandmother, was able to watch it on video, and said she’d been looking forward to Tuesday morning.

“I didn’t know how I was supposed to react to it because when you just hear someone’s heartbeat, it’s kind of like, oh, well, I’ve got the same thing beating in me, y’know? (But) it’s just so much different when someone else carries it, ’cause you just know ... I knew it was my dad.”

It has been painful beyond words to grow up without her father, she said, and there was no way to control those emotions when meeting Ramiro. “I’m happy at the same time,” she added, “because I know that he’s living another day” as the heart recipient.

Ramiro and his wife, Maria Dolores Cruz, were in Modesto on Tuesday to place flowers at Erik’s grave marker, which is right next to his grandfather’s in St. Stanislaus Catholic Cemetery on Scenic Drive. The bouquet included an Easter egg decoration, a symbol of new life, as in the new lease on life Erik’s heart has given Ramiro.

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Julie Sandoval and Ramiro Cruz talk after placing flowers at the grave of Julie’s son Erik in St. Stanislaus Catholic Cemetery on Scenic Drive on Tuesday morning, April 16, 2019, in Modesto. Deke Farrow jfarrow@modbee.com

Before the drive to the cemetery, the Cruzes, Julie and Erika sat down in a motel meeting room with representatives of Donor Network West, the organ procurement organization that coordinated the transplant. There, Julie gave her granddaughter — who’d just gotten her driving permit — a guardian angel to carry with her when on the roads. It’s a stuffed monkey that, when its paw is squeezed, plays a recording of Erik’s beating heart.

The earning of a driver’s license has a direct connection to Erik becoming a donor and ultimately saving Ramiro’s life, his mother said. Julie, a Benicia resident, said she used to come from the Bay Area to see Erik, who lived in the Ceres-Modesto area. During one visit, she mentioned that his 16-year-old sister, Raquel, just got her license and registered to be an organ donor.

He replied that was cool, and he’d do the same, Julie said. “If anything ever happened to me, I’d want to know I saved somebody’s life. Just give them whatever they need,” she remembered Erik telling her.

“At that moment, it was like, ‘OK, mijo,’ never expecting to get that call in 2007 that my son had been shot.” Julie paused, then continued, “Had it not been for that conversation I had with my son on what to do, I can sit here and honestly say I don’t know what I would have done.”

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Julie Sandoval-Preciado with her son Erik Sandoval Preciado in the hospital after he was shot. Preciado family

Because of the sudden, violent way he died, the last thing she wanted was to give up part of him, she said. But she honored his wish and donated his liver, kidneys and heart.

Then, because of his murder, not his gift to four people, “I walked away and I died and I went to hell,” Julie said. For nearly six years, she said, she was on nine medications for mental health, but came to realize they were doing more harm than good. She drank, too.

In 2012, she completed a six-month recovery program in Vallejo and kicked the pills, and is going on seven years sober. The program, support from friends and family, and a mission — to get justice for Erik — pulled her from the depths, she said. The last of her 31-year-old son’s killers were sentenced in October 2017.

That mission complete, Julie’s now focused on encouraging the gift of life through organ donation. New “heroes” continue to rise within her family by joining the donor ranks, she said.

“I will grieve forever; I have a hole in my heart,” she said. “But look what I have today — new family,” she added, resting her hands on Ramiro’s shoulders.

Ramiro, now 64, was the one to reach out to Erik’s family years back, wanting to meet his relatives and thank them for the gift. He was told it was too soon, still too painful, for them. Speaking in Spanish, he said he was told he’d hear back in about a year, but that didn’t happen.

Still, it remained very important to him and his children that they be able to thank his donor’s family, and he was so happy to hear from Julie in February. She hadn’t known where the Cruzes lived, but after learning they were in Bakersfield, they spoke on a Saturday and she was down there the following Wednesday.

Sitting between Julie and Erika on Tuesday, Ramiro appeared in fine shape. Asked if he was doing well, he replied, “Muy bien. Very, very strong. I walk, I run … walk one hour, one hour and a half.”

A quick scroll through posts on the Cruzes’ Facebook page shows a trip to Dodger Stadium, Halloween and Cinco de Mayo parties, concerts and so much more — all of which Ramiro is around for because of Erik’s organ donation.

“The fact that Erik had a conversation with his mother about his wish to be an organ donor if anything ever happened to him is a testament to his giving nature,” Kim Patton, regional director of Donor Network West, told The Bee. “Families make donation decisions during a very difficult time, and knowing what their loved ones’ wishes are makes things easier. Many find peace and closure in knowing that their loved ones leave a legacy, that something positive could come out of such a tragic situation.”

Donor Network West shared a few facts about organ donation:

  • In California, 22,000 people are waiting for organ transplants, and 400 reside in Stanislaus County.
  • People wait years hoping to receive an organ transplant in time to save their lives. Liver and kidney transplant candidates could wait seven to nine years in California.

  • Every day in the U.S., 22 people die waiting for a transplant.

  • One organ donor can save the lives of up to eight people, and a tissue donor can heal 75 others. Anyone can register as a donor, regardless of medical condition or age, at the DMV or at DonorNetworkWest.org.

“It’s a conversation that I believe needs to happen because when our time comes, if there’s a chance to save a life, I want to be a part of that,” Julie said.

“I quit smoking 41 days ago because I saw the miracle of life my son left behind. Now I feel part of my job is to pick up and carry that legacy on. So I had to get right, I had to get justice, I had to get clean. And here I am today, sane, sober and at peace.”

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