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A Hero’s Legacy - The Story of Danny Pino

 

Mary Dunlap wanted to be a mother. She planned to adopt a daughter, but when she got the call about Ricky, then 9 months old, she knew he was meant to be her son.

 

Mary was told Ricky would need a kidney transplant before he turned three. He was diabetic and had been malnourished for the first months of his life. Mary was no stranger to the struggles of living with diabetes, as it took her brother’s life.  He died from complications of diabetes the day before his living donor transplant was to take place. Mary went ahead and adopted Ricky, knowing what his kidney journey would be like. Ricky’s kidney function lasted longer than anticipated, but when he was 11 years old, he began dialysis. Despite living in Jacksonville, he was listed at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville to await a transplant.

 

On September 30, 2014, after waiting 10 months, Ricky, then 12, received his Gift of Life. Meanwhile, a few doors down on the pediatric intensive care unit, 7-year-old Zack Kaneshige was getting a kidney transplant, too. He waited six months for his lifesaving gift.  Zack Kaneshige was born at 33 weeks with bilateral renal dysplasia, a condition that prevented his kidneys from functioning. He began dialysis immediately while still in the neonatal intensive care unit. When Zack was 4 years old, he went into the foster care system. Weighing only 19 pounds at the time, his doctors predicted that he would need a kidney transplant within years. Two years later, Kasi and Melanie Kaneshige adopted Zack. Kasi worked as a patient care technician, and she felt she could handle Zack’s future health challenges. Mary and Kasi would soon realize their boys shared a very profound bond. “We knew the other kidney came to Shands,” Kasi said. “I was in ICU, and it had clear doors. I was sitting by the bed with Zack, and I looked up, a woman was waving at me. She said, ‘We’re your kidney family.”

 

Mary was right. The boys each received a kidney from the same donor. Mary, Kasi, Ricky and Zack developed a friendship. They scheduled the boys’ follow-up appointments in Gainesville for the same days and then would go to Tijuana Flats together. They met up for birthday parties and participated in the National Kidney Foundation’s Kidney Walk as a group. “We try to arrange things as much as we can for the boys to get together,” Mary said. In May 2016, Mary and Kasi both received letters in the mail from the donor mother Peggy Pino. Her 19-year-old son, Danny Pino, a gifted baseball player for Miami’s Coral Reef Senior High School and the United States Merchant Marine Academy, had been struck by a car while visiting friends in Tallahassee, and he had been registered as an organ donor. Danny saved three lives, donating both his kidneys and his liver. Ricky had Danny’s right kidney, and Zack received his left kidney. 

“It took me almost 2 years to write the first letters,” Peggy said. “I kept thinking, what if they don’t want to know who we are or where Danny came from? What if they don’t want to know who Danny was? I think that would have broken my heart. I figured out that if I didn’t try, I would never know. I wrote my first letters and included pictures. We were blessed that they both wanted to know and answered right away!”

 

Letters were exchanged, and in July 2018, Peggy, Danny’s sister, Samantha, and Peggy’s partner, Jorge, drove from Miami to St. Augustine to meet Danny’s recipients. “It’s hard to describe because you’re excited your kid is doing well and thriving because of their gift, but at the same time, you’re meeting someone who lost their child,” Kasi said. The mothers all stay in touch, communicating by phone and through social media. 

 

“We love Danny, and we celebrate his life every chance we get,” Mary said. Both Ricky and Zack continue to flourish since their kidney transplants. Ricky now topples in at 5-feet-9-inches tall, having grown two feet since his transplant. “Transplant has been a dream come true – not exaggerating,” Mary said. “He has been 1,001 percent healthy. His numbers always come back good. The transplant has been the most beautiful and wonderful thing God could have let me see after losing my brother to the same thing.”

Zack has not experienced any complications resulting from his transplant. In April 2020, Zack was diagnosed with COVID-19, which he fought valiantly for six weeks. In spite of his immunosuppressants being lowered so that he could battle the illness, his kidney remained strong. “That kidney is just phenomenal,” Kasi said. “It is perfect.”

 

Peggy has become involved with organ donation outreach, volunteering her time to educate others about the lifesaving importance of donation. Danny was honored on the 2020 Donate Life Rose Parade Float for his heroic gifts.  Since her son’s passing, Peggy created the PinoStrong Foundation. Danny joined the U.S. Army ROTC at Florida International University (FIU) in 2014. His childhood dream was to serve his country. Throughout the year, the PinoStrong Foundation creates care packages for military members to show support and appreciation. The foundation additionally established the Danny A. Pino ROTC Scholarship Fund at FIU to assist first generation college students, and the foundation also works to increase organ donation outreach. 

 

“In this day and age, we should strive to help others,” Peggy said. “Why would we take organs with us that can help others live a full life? It is a shame more people don’t understand. I am grateful that Danny knew what he wanted and put it on his license. It was his decision, and it is his legacy.”

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