By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Mack first learned about Jesica from a June 2000 editorial in The Franklin Timesaccompanied by a picture of then-14-year-old Jesica. The editorial explained that money was needed not for a transplant, but a series of cardiac catheterizations, each of which cost $7,000. The following day, as reported in JHC press materials, Mack guaranteed payment of the procedures, and, after being “impressed by this brave little girl’s optimism,” committed himself to raising the $350,000 needed for the transplant surgery.
By August 2000, Mack and Nita, well known Franklin County homebuilders, established Jesica’s Hope Chest as a nonprofit, and they had a plan: build a house with donated labor and materials, sell it, and use the proceeds to fund the operation. It took two years and was finally sold, on Christmas Day, 2002, an event that prompted headlines on the JHC Web site such as, “There really is a Santa Claus!”
It was not as if Mack and Nita didn’t have anything else to do. He’d run Elizabeth Dole’s senatorial campaign in Franklin County, and in 2001, the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce awarded the Chamber Business Leader Award to the M.E. Mahoney Building Company. The couple had plenty of work as far away as Virginia, not to mention two grown children and several grandchildren, and dozens of employees.
Why Mack reached out to Jesica and, later, other critically ill children was, he said, as simple as seeing a child in need. It is not that simple. Jesica — whose condition Duke’s Pediatric Cardiovascular Program, as early as November 2000, described as “uniformly fatal . . . she is likely to die in the next one to two years. Her death will be sudden” — was something to fight for, and Mack likes to fight. Long before he became an international figure for taking Duke to the mat, he was butting heads with people who didn’t give him what he wanted for Jesica. In 2001, he publicly criticized Duke after, he says, it reneged on an agreement to treat some of Jesica’s needs on a pro bono basis. He trashed a local builders’ association for not being more onboard with Mack’s plan to build more Jesica’s houses. But he begrudged none of the time Jesica took; he wanted me to know he loved the girl, and she him.
“Jesica used to call me 20 times a day. I couldn’t get anything done,” he said, with a grin. “When me and Nita went to see our kids in Texas, she called the phone machine over and over again. When I got back, I said, ‘Jesica, now why did you do that?’ And she said, ‘I just wanted to hear your voice.’ She always said, ‘You’re my Mack.’”
Before Mack and I spent the next four hours talking about Duke, and sifting through the thousands of PayPal donations JHC received while Jesica lingered between operations; before I saw a copy of the anonymous $50,000 check as well as the shit-smeared dollar bill with attached note reading, “JESICA SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN ALLOWED TO GET THE TRANSPLANTS. USE THE ENCLOSED $1 TO GET THE FAMILY OUT OF MY COUNTRY”; before I read the condolence letter from the governor and a cramped, six-page missive from a goth kid in Illinois who said he was in love with Jesica and was “thinking about killing myself right here to see if my organs would work [for her],” Mack wanted to get one thing straight with me:
“The lawyers already contacted a writer at Random House they feel would be better.” My heart beat in my throat. “[The writer] did some checking up on you,” he continued, “and said some pretty bad things, such as, you’re a single mom.”
I wanted Mack to approve of me — he’d already told me he had the rights to Jesica’s story, which I wanted to write almost as much as I wanted to breathe — but I could see, by the smile playing at one corner of his mouth, that he was baiting me. I told him that was right, and that I also lived with my boyfriend, who was not the father of my child.
Mack seemed to have already dropped the subject. “You know what [Dr. James] Jaggers said when he come out of surgery? He said it all went well, but there was an error; that the blood types didn’t match, but that blood protein was the least important factor in a transplant, that he’d already put her back on the transplant list, and that they could keep her alive for up to a year with chemotherapy drugs.”
At the height of Jesica’s ordeal, typing her name into Google’s News search yielded more than 20,000 documents, but nothing I’d read touched on this.
“And you know what [Duke spokesman Richard] Puff told the Louisburg papers?” asked Mack, his voice a hard rasp. “‘Rejection is always a factor early on.’ They wanted to keep the whole thing quiet, but they didn’t count on this cowboy. I was Duke’s worst nightmare!”
He leaned into my tape recorder. “Do you know what that CNN cameraman said to me the last time I left my hotel [near the hospital]? He said, ‘Mr. Mahoney, do you realize that you have stood for the past two weeks where few men have ever stood? You’ve stood at the center of the world stage. CNN broadcasts to 70-something countries, and your words have been translated into 47 different languages. You’ve stood where presidents and monarchs have stood.’”