By all accounts, Rafael Garcia was a model Miami firefighter: fit, athletic, popular with his colleagues at City of Miami Fire Station No. 5, a soon-to-be-father with a large extended family and a “hero” to his pregnant wife Maeghan.
The future seemed nothing but bright until March 15 when the firefighter and paramedic started to feel off. Doctors at South Miami Hospital delivered a grim shock: Garcia, known to friends and family as Ralf, had a mass in the cerebellum area of the brain that controls coordination.
Only weeks earlier, he smiled with a nice fish caught aboard a fishing boat in Miami waters. But by Sunday, doctors at the University of Miami Hospital had declared him brain dead. Garcia was transferred there last week, where he had emergency surgery. On Tuesday, his family decided to end life support.
Garcia was just 28, with a yet-to-born son, Mason James, due for delivery in May.
“As I sit here, trying to cope as best I can, I struggle to find the words to express what I am feeling. Everyone tells me how ‘strong’ and ‘amazing’ I am being, but the truth is the only thing that is keeping me going is Ralf's baby, whose heart is beating inside of me,” Maeghan posted on her Facebook wall Tuesday. “I am only trying to do what I know Ralf would have done for me.”
Her Facebook page swelled with messages of support for the 2005 graduate of Christopher Columbus High School. She had charted her husband’s rapidly changing condition — from concern to hope to the realization of the inevitable.
Before he was declared dead, Maeghan — a 2005 graduate of Columbus’ sister school, Our Lady of Lourdes Academy — wrote that his organs would be donated.
“I truly believe that the only reason he is still holding on at this point is because he knows he will continue to help others even after his passing. In true Ralf fashion, I can just imagine him not wanting to ‘be selfish’ by letting go too soon,’’ she wrote. “That was his nature, always thinking of others first. My forever hero.”
The couple married in a ceremony in Coral Gables in Dec. 2011.
Garcia’s colleagues in the Miami Fire Department expressed gratitude for the outpouring of calls of support. They struggled to put together a statement that would do justice to one of their own, one so young with so much promise.
“He was one of those subordinates that you wish you could clone to staff your entire department,” said Garcia’s supervisor Lt. Christopher Cope in an email. “Always the Eagle Scout, he led by example. I'm pretty sure our department will need to come up with a new award to present in his name, perhaps for a great act of heroism that results in saving lives.”
Firefighter Matthew Conway and Garcia were hired together at City of Miami Station No. 5 and followed each other to the station’s fire boat. “Ralphy is known in our department as ‘that guy.’ He was that guy to fight the mop out of your hands, that guy to jump into 15 feet of water to chase your sunglasses all the way to the bottom when you had dropped them into the water, that guy to put himself in the least desirable position while working. And he did this all because he wanted to do right by you.”
Lt. Robert Suarez of City of Miami Fire Rescue said services for Garcia will begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday with a viewing at Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Funeral Home, 8200 Bird Rd. Miami.
A mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at St. Kevin Roman Catholic Church, 12525 SW 42nd St., Miami, to be followed by burial at Our Lady of Mercy, 11411 NW 25th St., Miami.
A GoFundMe page online was created to raise money for baby Mason’s college fund. By Tuesday afternoon family and friends had already contributed more than $100,000.
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