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Waiting for a Merical: Teen’s death gives life to family friend

Updated: Jun. 20, 2019 at 6:46 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Tom Munoz and Jim Merical have separate lives but work together on joint projects. Tom is in private construction. He buys, remodels and flips homes, statewide. Jim is a real estate broker.

Both men are longtime friends who, now, in a strange and surreal sort of way, are family.

Tom Munoz and Jim Merical
Tom Munoz and Jim Merical(Source: Family)

Tom, who lives in Huntsville but who is originally from Cuba, had dealt with liver issues on and off all his adult life. He eventually developed liver cancer and in November 2018, was put on the liver transplant list through Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville. He was 19th on the list in late April, “climbing up the ladder,” he said, toward the top.

On Good Friday, they learned that Jim’s 17-year-old niece, Paige Merical, was towed under in a rip current on a North Carolina beach. She was a Raleigh girl enjoying spring break with her friend, Ian. The surf swept them away.

Ian was not found for days. Paige was pulled out after nearly 15 minutes underwater. She was resuscitated and transported to the hospital.

Paige Merical
Paige Merical(Source: Family)

She improved, even breathing on her own for a time, but then, she went downhill, fast. It was clear, after days, she would not survive. She was brain dead. The waves had won. That was all happening in the Carolinas.

Back in Alabama, Jim, his wife and their friends knew that Tom needed a liver. They suggested that Jim somehow approach Paige's dad, John.

In Jim’s mind: “How do you approach your brother about that? We don’t want to give up any hope for Paige by doing that?”

Jim knew Paige was special. John and his wife, Suzi, had adopted Paige when she was a day old. Paige was the daughter they had always dreamed of. Their miracle. She was strong-willed, smart and athletic and made it clear that she was an organ donor.

So Jim asked John if he would consider a direct donation to his friend, Tom. Jim kept the conversation simple: “I have a friend who needs a liver."

That was the moment John knew organ donation was the route of travel, yet neither Jim nor John knew the next step.

Jim asked, “Can it be done?” John said, “I don’t know. I can ask."

John asked.

So did Tom’s wife, Jackie.

Was is legal? Ethical? Would Paige and Tom even be a match?

Jackie, who was transporting Tom to Vandy regularly, said she was told “the chances are a million to one. They had never seen this. It was not something common."

Still, she believed.

Jackie said, “From there on out, I never doubted for one second that wasn’t Tom’s liver."

Tom Munoz getting examined after his liver transplant.
Tom Munoz getting examined after his liver transplant.(Source: Family)

She said if you think about it, how often do circumstances arise where an individual authorized to make a direct organ donation would know another individual who is in dire need of a directed donation?

John got the wheels turning in North Carolina.

Jackie, at Vanderbilt.

John was the first to hear whether Paige would be Tom's donor.

The nurse came in and said, “Thumbs up. You aren’t telling me? Yep. Perfect match?”

Against all odds, Paige was a perfect match to Tom.

John couldn't believe it.

Meantime in Huntsville, a week after Paige's tragic accident, the phone rang close to midnight.

Jackie got the call and started to pack their bags for the hospital that is two hours away. “Everything that happened was a miracle."

Tom was finally on the road to recovery.

He was very grateful but very guilty.

“I know that God has a bigger plan for me. I’m just trying to get the full picture of it," said Tom.

“No one believes this story when you tell them, but its true. It happened to us," said Jackie.

John, Suzi, Jim and his family are all still grieving Paige’s loss and still trying to come to terms with the whirlwind events in the last month.

John says he wants to come to Huntsville to meet Tom and Jackie, hopefully, this summer.

In the meantime, he is coping by keeping Paige's memory alive by speaking to anyone who will listen about the dangers of rip currents.

He is on a mission. All while feeling pride that he raised a young woman who in death offered life to not only Tom, but two others (so far).

Clearly a miracle. Paige Merical.

Here is more information on rip currents.

Click here to sign up to be an organ donor.

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