Newark toddler lives on in children who needed second chance

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on December 09, 2016

Patti Jackson sits with Abel Montesino at her home in Newark on December 8, 2016 . Montesino received Jackson's 13 month old daughter's kidney after she was hit by a car.

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Five years ago, Abel Montesino missed an entire year of school in Newark.

The then-eighth-grader was on dialysis, a tiresome process that began to wear on him, making the 14-year-old teen doubt he'd ever receive the kidney he desperately needed.

"I was getting depressed,'' he said. "Dialysis was painful."

That same year -- on April 7, 2011 -- 13-month-old Zoe Jackson was with her cousin and aunt as they crossed South 18th Street at 18th Avenue in Newark. At the same time, a stolen Jeep, with two teens in it, came speeding the wrong way along the one-way street. The driver lost control of the Jeep and it hit another vehicle, sending that car crashing into Zoe and her family members.

The little, chubby-cheeked girl died two days later. But her mother, Patti Jackson, didn't want that to be the end of her daughter's life.  

Zoe lives on through organ donation. Her heart went to a 2-year-old boy; her liver to a 1-year-old boy.

And Montesino, now 19, received her kidney. The last time I wrote about Zoe, we didn't know who the recipient of her kidney was. Nor did Jackson.

Montesino and Jackson met in 2013, two years after the transplant. He came to her home and it was an emotional visit. The meeting had been arranged by the NJ Sharing Network, a nonprofit procurement organization that is part of a national organ recovery system.

"We all sat around,'' Jackson said. "We cried together, we ate together. It was really nice.''

Since then, they've stayed in touch, checking in with phone calls and getting together on several occasions.

"She (Zoe) was a gift from God,''  Montesino said.

Spiritually, yes.

But the gift also shows the importance of organ donation, a choice that needs to be stressed most especially in the African-American community.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are the largest group of minorities in need of a transplant -- making up 29 percent of the 131,347 people on the national waiting list, but just 13.5 percent of the organ donors.  

In New Jersey, the figures are just as challenging. The NJ Sharing Network said African-Americans in the state represent 37 percent of the 5,000 people on the transplant waiting list. In the last five years, African Americans have been 23 percent of organ donors in the Garden State.

Jackson, after talking with Zoe's dad and her family, didn't hesitate to give her approval when she was approached by the Sharing Network.

"She didn't even let the sentence finish,'' said Oscar V. Colon, a clinical donation specialist. "She said if Zoe can't be saved, let her save other babies."

Jackson believes this was the best decision she's ever made to honor the memory of her daughter, a bow-legged toddler who seemed to get into everything.

"Zoe was such a life force,'' Jackson said.

She started walking at 7 months and her vibrant personality made everybody want to know this child.

"Deciding to donate her organs was the only choice to make because she had to go on. She had to live on forever,'' Jackson said.

She shared her thoughts Tuesday at Newark's University Hospital, which was honored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for its work in organ and tissue donation, and raising awareness in the African-American community.

"This giving of life comes with great sacrifice,'' said John N. Kastanis, chief executive officer of University Hospital. "Yet, through that tragedy, her family was able to understand the power and importance (Zoe's) shortened life could have on others.''

Montesino is studying to be a phlebotomist, but always makes time to see Jackson and let her know he remains healthy.

"Since I have that kidney, we're like family,'' Montesino said. "She (Zoe) is inside me, but I take care of her.''

Jackson doesn't have updates on the other two boys who received Zoe's organs. She last heard from their families in a letter after the transplants in 2011. They were doing fine at that time.

The life-saving donation continues to help Jackson cope, rather than focus on the juveniles who have not been held responsible for taking her life.

"That's why I go so hard on this,'' she said.

Thomas Fennelly, a spokesman for the Essex Couonty Prosecutors Office, said the teens were never charged because investigators could not determine who was driving the car.

You got away with murder, young men. If you see this story, the only thing one can hope for is that you've changed your lives.

"I could be walking past them on the street and never know it,'' Jackson said.

She tempers her anger, stays private with her grief. On cemetery visits, Jackson tries to be sure to go with others when she places balloons and flowers on Zoe's grave.

"I don't want to leave,'' she said, if she's by herself. "That's the last place where I know my baby was.''

This year's anniversary of the accident was difficult, too. It fell on a Thursday, the same day of the week that Zoe was killed.

Jackson and her mother were on their way to the bank when she was overcome with anxiety. Her teenage son, Ameer, 14, was walking to the store with his 4-year-old sister, Parker. Doing what Zoe was doing -- walking on the street.

"It dawned on me what day it was, what time of day it was, where they were going,'' Jackson said. "I almost had a panic attack.''

Although painful, she moves on, thrusting herself into organ donation advocacy while raising four children with their dad. On Jan. 2, she'll be at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., where she'll stand on the parade route to see a floragraph picture of Zoe on the Donate Life float.

At home, Zoe's adorable baby face is comforting, too. She smiles in pictures on the walls. Some are the same ones I saw when I wrote about Zoe and another baby, Madison Spearman, who was almost a year old when she died violently. Both children are buried in Rosehill Cemetery in Linden. Same row, 11 graves apart. Madison's organs were donated, too.

Should Jackson want to be closer to Zoe than a picture in a frame, she doesn't have to visit the cemetery

She can simply hug Montesino.

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