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Archive for February 2022

Book Review: “Tragedy to Triumph – The Story of Tom’s Heart,” by Janet W. Mauk and Pete Radigan

Beyond His Years
by Gene Siudut

In the mid-‘90s, Pete Radigan had a big heart.
Too big, in fact. His severe cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart, developed into Stage 4 heart failure. Pete had two options – a heart transplant or death.
Pete, like me, is a New Jersey guy. Also like me, he is a volunteer basketball coach at the New Tampa YMCA. I’ve been coaching against Pete for a few seasons. Mostly to his benefit, as I had a run of consecutive defeats to his teams until the past year or so, when my teams started coming into their own.
I remember the first time I coached against him. He walked with a bit of a limp and was bent over as if he had back problems. He certainly had a frail demeanor, but once the game started, his voice boomed across the court toward his players, the refs and anyone who would listen.
Immediately, I knew this was no frail man. He didn’t have a surplus of physical energy but whatever emanated from his insides was that of a man half his age. I didn’t like that Pete was making a good living off beating my teams at the onset. There weren’t many coaches who had a winning record against me, and Pete was making me look like a novice.
The problem was I couldn’t help but like him.
A coach needs to be an example of sportsmanship, dignity, respect and all those other wonderful coach-speak terms. And in this developmental league, winning is not as important as developing youth, but there are some coaches you just want to beat. Pete was one of those guys because he seemed to know the game so well. I liked him personally, but I wanted to shake his hand after a game and wish him better luck next time.
I think out of our first nine meetings, I only beat him twice, which irked me, but I knew my guys were developing nicely and I’d be ready for him in the near future. But that chance appeared lost when Pete disappeared for a while.
What I discovered was Pete became very sick. I knew he had general bad health, but I never knew exactly what his ailments were, only that they seemed to debilitate him.
There was even a point when we were told his situation was dire and did not know if he would make it through. Before that, all I wanted was for him to return so I could beat him. My thoughts quickly evolved to just wanting him to be able to leave the hospital.
By grace, doctors and good fortune, Pete made it out of the hospital and eventually was able to return to the sideline. I didn’t know a whole lot about his physical ordeals, but soon after his return, I was made aware of a book written by him and Janet Mauk called “Tragedy to Triumph, The Story of Tom’s Heart.”
Immediately, I was intrigued and again, a little jealous. There I was, a writer for a newspaper for 15 years who always wanted to write a book. And there was Pete. Not only was he a better basketball coach then me. He was also a published writer. I had to get to the bottom of this.
Well, you can forget about me writing any kind of book because whatever stupid observations I have in this world are insignificant compared to the life lived by Pete, his co-author Janet, and through both of them, Janet’s son, Tom.
“Tragedy to Triumph” is the story of a big heart, but not the one enlarged by Pete’s disease. The heart given to him through the tragedy of the death of 16-year-old Tom Mauk.
And it was given.
A motorcycle accident robbed Tom of his life, but through organ donation, he was able to help seven other people survive. The question of organ donation was asked of Tom’s parents, who gave that permission. They would find out that six months before he passed, Tom had remarked to his friends that if anything ever happened to him, he would want to be an organ donor.
Thankfully for Pete, who was very near to the end of his life without a transplant, the gift of life arose from Tom’s tragedy. However, that tragedy and transplant are just the beginning of this tale.
“Tom displayed perception beyond his years …”
On the surface, the sentence reads as complimentary. A deeper look, however, is the soul of the bitter-sweet story of Tom Mauk, who literally and figuratively lived beyond his years.
As a child of divorced parents, Tom lived the back-and-forth life many children in his situation experience who take residence in two homes. He lived with his mother most of the time but felt he needed his father in his life and made the decision, unprovoked, to pack his bags and tell his mother he was moving in with his dad.
While it was just 34 miles away, Janet was not going to take this lying down. She wanted to fight the decision, but her legal counsel let her know that a judge would likely abide by the wishes of a 13-year-old unless there was something egregious that could be proven in court.
Being a God-fearing woman, Janet trusted the Lord in the process and granted Tom his wish. Tom sensed his mother’s pain over the decision and on the way to church one Sunday, Tom told his mother, “Mom, I’m going to my father’s because I need to be with him, not because you are a bad mother.”
As readers, we know Tom’s physical life would meet with a tragic end just three years later. But this is how the book starts. It grabs you and lets you know this isn’t some sappy story about a kid who had no idea how his decisions affected people positively or negatively.
The gift of Tom’s organs brought beauty to a tragedy and his mother’s recollections of him gave that gift a face. There is a brutal honesty when discussing his struggles as a teenager and her struggles as a parent. And not to be forgotten is the simultaneous dire consequences that were assuaged when Pete received Tom’s heart.
When I first met my wife almost 15 years ago, one of the attractions we had to each other was our love of reading. She was an English/literature teacher at the time and we talked for hours about writers and books we loved and hated.
Since then, I’ve barely read a book. I read so much at La Gaceta, I want to get away from the written word during my free time, but I still make the attempt when the mood strikes. This has led me to start at least five books simultaneously that I haven’t made it past the first 20 pages.
This book, however, is not one of those. For the first time in my adult life, I read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down and for anyone who knows me, that should be endorsement enough.
I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but worth noting is the mandate this book carries. The obligation not just to register as an organ donor, but to make those wishes known.
As with anything people don’t fully understand, there is a lot of bad information out there about organ donation. Some common misconceptions include:
1. Doctors don’t work as hard to save the lives of organ donors
2. People believe they are too old/young to register to be a donor
3. Can’t have an open-casket funeral
4. People in bad health should not register to be a donor
5. Rich/famous people go to the top of the national transplant waiting list
Naturally, none of the above statements are true. When speaking with Pete about the misconceptions, he felt that a lot of it comes from the lack of conversations people have about death.
“Talking about organ, eye, and tissue donation is hard because it’s a discussion about what you want to happen if you die,” Pete told me. “My answer to that is simple. Seventeen people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, and one organ, eye and tissue donor can save and heal more than 75 lives. Federal law says, any eligible death, anywhere in the country, your family is going to be asked about organ, eye and tissue donation. At the worst moment of any family’s life, wouldn’t you want to know what that one last wish was? So I would say to everyone, whether you decide to be an organ, eye or tissue donor, make the decision and share the decision”
I asked Pete if he felt any obligation to Tom for the gift of his heart, as in taking care of it while also making the most of his life. He said he lives his life to the fullest every day but added he doesn’t dwell on if he’s doing too much or if he needs rest, nor does he worry about how much time he has left. “You can’t really live life that way. I truly live for the day and live, truly live each moment, each day,” he said.
But not far from his thoughts are Janet and he knows she already appreciates the good care he takes of Tom’s heart and through that care, Tom lives on.
There is a lot of good information about how to approach conversations about organ, eye and tissue donation, how to get registered and pretty much everything else you would want to know. Two good places to start, however are Donate Life America’s websites, DonateLife.net and RegisterMe.org.
Janet and Pete are especially thankful to their sponsor Biomatrix, a specialty transplant pharmacy, Donate Life America and many others who supported them through this journey.
In basketball, all I want to do is beat Pete every chance I get. In life, however, I want nothing but success for Pete, which means getting as many people to become registered donors as possible. It would also be nice to see his and Janet’s book on every coffee table in America. To make that happen, please go to Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or right to the source at www.tragedytotriumph.net.
Gene Siudut can be emailed at gsiudut@lagacetanewspaper.com

Silhouettes profiles Dr. Mario Hernandez

By Tiffany Razzano
Published January 7, 2022

Like many Ybor City natives, Dr. Mario Hernandez has Cuban, Spanish and Sicilian roots and, of course, connections to the historic cigar industry.
His Cuban father was born in Key West after his family immigrated first from Spain and the Canary Islands. At the time, Key West was a growing community thanks to the success of the cigar industry there. But the island was hit by powerful hurricanes, which ended the cigar trade there, Hernandez said. “And so they started bringing the tobacco here to Tampa.” And his father’s side of the family followed the industry as cigar factories opened in Ybor City.
His father met his mother, a Tampa native, here. She was part Spanish – on her father’s side – and Sicilian – on her mother’s side. “So, I’m Italian, Spanish and Cuban,” he said.
It was a different time growing up in Ybor City, one he remembers fondly. “I grew up, as a kid, right there, at what is MLK and 15th Street. It was actually Buffalo. It used to be called Buffalo Avenue,” Hernandez said. “And, you know, I grew up in a time when, you know, you ate breakfast and the doors of the stable were open, and the kids would just run out and come back when your mother screamed for you to come and eat. That was the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in.”
Like many families, much of their socializing happened around good. “Everything was always centered around eating,” he said. “My mother being, you know, having a big Italian influence, would cook. On Sunday, she would cook spaghetti…My mother was not really religious; we weren’t religious. I would say we were spiritual…So, our church on Sundays was my mother’s kitchen, cooking spaghetti sauce.”
It was such a powerful memory for the family that when she died he printed her recipe and the story of her sauce on Sundays on the back of her prayer card.
“That was really fun,” he said. “And, of course, the recipe was, how much garlic do you put in? And the answer would be, ‘Well, it depends on how good the garlic is.’ If it’s really good garlic, you put in less. It’s like, well, what is good garlic? She had this recipe based on how good the ingredients were. It’s so funny.”
His parents ran a store in Ybor City. Hernandez spent a lot of time there as a child, but one of his most vivid moments decades later was hiding from the Ku Klux Klan. A biracial couple had moved about a half a block from the shop and one day his father saw KKK members in white robes marching toward the couple’s home. He and his parents locked the door, pulled down the shades and turned off the lights, and the three of them hid behind the meat counter while the KKK burned a cross in the nearby yard.
“I’ll never forget it, because I saw how concerned my parents were. I never saw my father like that. I can still remember it,” Hernandez said.
He was just a little boy and the gravity of what was happening – and the racism and hatred behind the KKK’s actions – didn’t fully hit him until he was older. “We lived in a Latin community where we were, to a certain extent, living in our own world with other people like us,” he said.
As he grew older though, he noticed things were different when his family traveled outside Ybor City. “When you went out a little bit, like we would try to rent motels at the beach, I remember, ‘Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins. Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins,’ and we’d go place to place to place to try to find a place,” he said. “There was prejudice and my father was always very concerned about where I would go to hang out and do things. He says, ‘Some of these places you go, we’ll never find your body.’ Well, that’s a scary thought. That was just a reality I grew up with. But within the Latin community, you know, it was different. It was like our own world. Tampa was a beautiful, protective kind of bubble.”
Growing up, there was only one person in his family who attended college. Higher education wasn’t the norm for his parents, and though they had a lot of confidence in his abilities, he didn’t have much guidance as far as schooling or his career path.
Access to WEDU’s programming was influential and life-changing for him at a young age. “I didn’t have like a role model for a whole lot, you know, outside (Ybor City,) and so, to me, the window to the outside world, the thing that made me go like, ‘Wow, what is that job? How did that person get that job?’ was WEDU,” he said. “I would watch WEDU all the time…And that’s where I’d see these jobs. You know, I’d see a professor. I was always into animals and plants, I still am.”
Initially, he wanted to be an animal behavioralist and WEDU drove those dreams. After high school, he went on to the University of South Florida. The early research he completed was working with crows and tools. “Crows are amazing creatures,” Hernandez said. “They’re very intelligent.”
While working with the crows, though, his research assistantship funding ran out, forcing him to switch gears. He was pointed in the direction of Dr. Robert Friedman, a clinical psychologist and USF staff member who eventually chaired the psychology department. Friedman was hiring people to work with teenagers with emotional issues at the Florida Mental Health Institute.
Hernandez wasn’t sold on changing his career path, though. He told his wife, “I’m not gonna work with teenagers. You know, that’s not what I want to do.”
She told him, “Well, why don’t you go check it out? We need the money.”
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from USF in 1975, followed by a master’s degree in clinical/community psychology from the university in 1978. While working toward his Ph.D. in clinical/community psychology, also at USF, he headed west to complete his required internship at Camarillo State Hospital in California in 1980. “That’s where all the movie stars go,” he said.
It was a big move and adjustment for Hernandez and his tightknit family. He recalls his sister moving away from their Ybor City neighborhood before him. She didn’t go very far, moving to Lutz. “My mother was crying, because it was like she was moving to France, you know. They might never see her again,” he said. “But that’s how the families were. Everybody stayed right by each other. So, then, you can imagine what it was like when the son moves to California.” The first plane trip his parents ever took was to visit him on the West Coast.
His connection with Friedman at USF gained him many admirers at Camarillo State Hospital and the area. “He’s nationally famous for his way of thinking about how children’s services should be,” Hernandez said. “It’s not all just therapy based. It’s more about how we support kids and families in a more realistic way as opposed to just always thinking in terms of treatment. It’s about how agencies can work together to help.”
He added, “Well, it turns out that where I moved to, the county was replicating and trying to put his ideas into a real situation. So when they found out that I knew him, it was like a golden key for me. It was like, ‘You know this guy? You know Elvis.’ ‘Yeah, he’s my friend.’”
After earning his Ph.D. from USF, he remained in California operating a private practice and working with various agencies. But the late 1980s, he took on the position of chief of children and youth services with Ventura County Mental Health. His work focused on reforming and overhauling the system.
“Part of the work that I did in California was we helped to close the state hospitals. Our work was to make sure that no children ever had to go there,” he said. “We emptied them. We emptied them out of our county and then we did five counties and then it went statewide.”
With the success in California, Hernandez has consulted in many states on children and youth services, helping to reform their systems. “It was an incredible ride. I mean what were doing in California to replicate what (Friedman) was one of the designers of here just opened up the whole world,” he said. So from a guy who never left his neighborhood, I can’t believe everything I’ve been able to see and do just through my career in advocacy and reform.”
By 1993, he returned to Tampa. His mentor, Friedman, recruited him back to USF, offering him a position as a research associate professor and director of division of training, research, evaluation and demonstrations for the university’s Department of Child and Family Services. He’s been there ever since, working his way up.
Life came full circle for him when Friedman retired. USF asked Hernandez to take over the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences as chair in 2007.
The interdisciplinary department is the largest at the university with 267 employees. It’s also responsible for bringing in around $60 million in grants for various research projects.
“We have psychologists, sociologists. We have educators. We have business majors, anthropologists,” he said. “So, we are really interdisciplinary and whenever we approach a problem, we approach it from all those different perspectives, which really lends a lot.”
The department continues to grow, Hernandez added. “We have the rehab and mental health counseling program. We just added a marriage and family therapy program. We have five certificates. We have a new minor in addictions counseling, which is totally popular. We also have an applied behaviors minor.”
He added, “And we still have more ideas.”
Most university psychology departments are driven by accreditation standards. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, with so many professions associated with it, it’s adopted a “more unique” mission and vision statement, he said.
“And we did that on purpose because we would no matter what you are, that’s what we’re about. We’re about that first. We want to support everyone and everything they’re doing, while meeting accreditation, of course,” he said. “But we have a real mission statement. It’s not just a slogan that was thrown together. It’s real and has purpose, and that’s what drives us.”

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