For more than six hours, Raymond Stillfried was the most wanted man in South Florida.
After a yearlong wait - and 15 minutes after he had left his doctor’s office - the hospital treating his severe diabetes found a kidney and pancreas that matched Stillfried. But it couldn’t find the patient.
He had to be located in about seven hours or the sensitive organs would go to another patient.
“We weren’t expecting this,” his wife, Ada Stillfried, said in tears Wednesday as her husband recovered from the transplant operation. “We were out shopping. We were very upset. We thought he had to wait months.”
The hunt began shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday.
Stillfried had come to Miami from his native Caracas, Venezuela, for a checkup and to find out where he stood on the organ transplant list. The 33-year-old man was told his wait would be at least a few months longer.
The Stillfrieds left to go shopping.
Fifteen minutes later, the hospital tried to reach him on the pager that transplant patients are supposed to carry at all times in case an organ is unexpectedly found. But Stillfried had forgotten to take his.
The hospital had 24 hours before the organs would begin to deteriorate. But Stillfried had only seven - doctors would need time to prepare for another transplant recipient if they couldn’t find him.
Stillfried’s relatives and neighbors frantically called stores, malls and restaurants. Some took to the roads, combing parking lots of stores and restaurants he and his wife frequented during their visits to Miami. A cousin, Manuel Gonzalez, called rental car companies, eventually finding the agency that had rented the white Mazda 626 to the couple.
An hour went by.
Hollis Palmer-Cadena, a neighbor, drove to neighborhood stores and asked workers to page the Stillfrieds. She called a radio station and asked them to broadcast an emergency message.
At about 3 p.m., Gonzalez drove to the Metro-Dade police station near his relatives’ home and got them to issue an alert asking officers to search for the Stillfrieds’ white Mazda. The Florida Highway Patrol joined in when Gonzalez remembered the couple had talked about going to an outlet mall in the Keys.
“We just had to pray and pray and hope that they were found,” said Maria Luisa Silva, Stillfried’s cousin who lives in Miami.
Police finally caught up with the Stillfrieds at a discount wholesale store in Kendall, a suburb in southwest Miami.
They hustled them to the police station, where officers tried in vain to get a helicopter. It was about 7:30 p.m. and only about 30 minutes remained before Stillfried’s chance would be gone.
Sgt. Ozzie Hernandez put Stillfried and Silva into a squad car and sped away for the hospital across the city, about 45 minutes away on any other day. Stillfried’s wife followed in another car.
Sirens blaring, they raced over crowded Miami expressways at speeds of more than 100 mph, dodging drivers who refused to move.
“At one point I just closed my eyes and prayed,” Silva said.
Stillfried reached the hospital with about four minutes to spare.
He was in stable condition Wednesday afternoon after a nine-hour operation.
Relatives and friends said Stillfried’s good fortune was remarkable.
“There are criminals who have better luck - they don’t have half the world looking for them,” Gonzalez said.
Dr. Gaetano Ciancio, one of the transplant surgeons who operated on Stillfried, said he was lucky to get matched with donated organs in the first place.
“It’s very rare to match the kidney and pancreas,” he said. “It was an unusual situation. The organs were here. He wasn’t.”
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