Stonemason with double lung transplant creates beauty at national cemetery

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May 31—Some doubted whether Mark Rodriguez would survive his first double lung transplant.

Four years later, when he underwent the procedure a second time, he had visions of floating above the operating table as surgeons worked on him. And he realized, once again, how close he had come to crossing to the other side.

Death is inevitable. You should accept it. But that doesn't mean you can't fight for another day of life or love, Rodriguez said.

Now, well aware of how precious his time on this earth is, the 51-year-old stone mason from Santa Fe has finally learned how to live.

And he is doing his best to give thanks for every extra second of his life. He's part of a work crew building a new columbarium in Santa Fe National Cemetery, the final resting place for military veterans and their loved ones.

"I have family here, friends here, friends of family members here," he said, taking a break from a weekday ritual of chiseling, hammering and cutting stone to look at the gravesites around him.

"I feel like I was guided here," he said. "It is a way I can honor veterans."

Watching Rodriguez at work, Dawn Davide, his supervisor, said if any worker has a reason to come in late, call in sick or slack off, it's the man who survived two double lung transplants.

That's not the case with Rodriguez, she said. "He's always the first one here on the job," she said.

She recently approached Rodriguez about doing another construction job in Albuquerque that pays more. He turned it down.

"He is committed to this national cemetery," she said. "He's honored to be here every day."

For Rodriguez, every second of every day counts. He has little empathy for a co-worker who shows up late, complaining about having to change a flat tire and saying his day was ruined as a result.

"You didn't have a bad day," Rodriguez said. "You had a bad half-hour."

He's had lots of bad half-hours. A Santa Fe High School graduate who once fostered dreams of becoming a social worker, he was pushed to succeed by his father, the late Bobby Rodriguez, a former head coach at St. Michael's and Santa Fe high schools.

Mark Rodriguez played basketball under his father's tutelage. "Excuses are a tool of the weak," his father once told him when Mark tried to avoid taking responsibility for a mistake he made on the court.

His father left Rodriguez a legacy of life lessons, which boil down to one approach: "It's about owning it, saying I screwed up, making it right," Mark Rodriguez said.

He stumbled into masonry work in the late 1980s, taking a job mixing mortar. He had a keen eye for watching how more experienced stone masons worked and, over time, taught himself how to excel at the task.

Rock, stone and marble have much to teach him, he said. There's something about shaping a rock or stone to fit into a larger piece that speaks to how we should live, he said.

"Maybe something doesn't fit or work, so you have to move it around," he said. "This job teaches me about the need to have a strong base. It teaches me that whatever I take on, it needs a strong foundation."

But that foundation could not possibly have prepared him for the news, late in 2010, that he had silicosis, a lung disease brought on by breathing in silica, a crystal found in rock, stone and sand.

Like on construction sites.

He underwent his first double lung transplant in October 2011. He said surgeons had to take out what was left of his shattered lungs with a hammer and chisel.

"How ironic," the stonemason said with a smile.

Doctors told him that, even if he survived, he would never be able to go back to the thing he loved doing most — working with stone — again.

Deprived of that option, he said he thought he would die of depression rather than lung disease.

Dejected, he tried other jobs, including sales and coaching. They didn't stick.

"I felt I didn't belong," he said.

Remembering the lessons his father taught him about never giving up, he went back to the work he knew how to do best.

And he was more prepared in January 2016 when he underwent his second double lung transplant.

He knows one day he will die. But when Mark Rodriguez sees his father again, he doesn't want him to say to him, "Why did you quit?"

Nor will he go into any day on the job without giving it his all.

"This could be my last day I do this," he said. "I better do a good job. I don't want someone to say I did a bad job on the last day of my life."

There's hope for a new life ahead. On Oct. 10, he'll marry his fiancée, Sandra Vacca, an event planner. Given his first transplant operation was on Oct. 11 a decade ago, he's hoping he'll have happier memories of what that time of year means to him once he is wed.

Vacca, who met Rodriguez in 2018, said she knew right away "he was a warrior."

"He is a thinker and a doer and he is a walking inspiration. He has this huge message — never, ever give up."

Any road to recovery, redemption and survival is fraught with bumps, obstacles and challenges, Rodriguez said.

Still, people forget how beautiful that road can be as they navigate it, he said.

"The road and the ride are not the same," he said. "You can't change the road. You can change the ride."

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