Courtesy Photo

In September 2013, John “Ricky” Villarreal died after a two-year battle with heart problems. He was 23.

In December that same year, his aunts organized a blood drive and toy collection in his honor, an event that’s becoming an annual tradition that unites his entire family.

More importantly the effort that not only keeps his memory alive, but helps to keep others alive as well.

“These people don’t realize the gift they’re giving other families,” said Katrina Villarreal, Ricky’s mother.

“He (Ricky) went through so much blood. It was a necessity for him,” she added, becoming emotional.

After three years, she still has trouble speaking about the passing of her first son.

Villarreal was raised in Sylmar. He enjoyed playing in the Santa Rosa Baseball League, camping in Yosemite and fishing with his father. At age 10, his parents had another child, younger brother Vincent. At 15, Villarreal suffered the loss of his father, and became a father figure for his brother while helping his mother cope and keep going.

His Illness

In 2011, Villarreal became sick with a cold and the virus got into his blood.

He was diagnosed with myocarditis — inflammation of the heart — and it weakened his heart. For the next two years he battled congested heart failure and other health issues.

Villarreal spent most of that time at the USC Keck Hospital in Los Angeles.

“They (the doctors) suggested a heart transplant, but he wasn’t eligible,” his mother recalled.

Instead, they implanted a valve into his heart that required electricity all the time.

The doctors recommended he lose weight in order to prepare him for the transplant. While he was waiting for a donor, his heart and valve failed.

Villarreal was immediately put on a transplant list and a donor was found.

“It was a long recovery for him,” Katrina Villarreal said.

Because of his health problems, Villarreal lost a section of his bowel right after transplant surgery.

Still, he gave it his best to get well.

On Christmas Day, 2012, Villarreal and his family received the best present they could get — he was able to come home.

“We were able to go camping and do a lot of the things he liked to do,” Katrina said.

For the next several months, Villarreal continued to thrive. But in July, after a family camping trip, he got sick. By August Villarreal went back into the hospital because his body was rejecting the transplant.

As his health deteriorated, one of Villarreal’s toes was amputated and he overcame a respiratory embolism.

A positive person, “he never let it discourage him. It was just another challenge that he had to overcome,” his mother said. “He fought and fought.”

Despite all efforts, however, the avid Dodgers and Chargers fan died on Sept. 16, 2013.

Keeping His Memory Alive

In December 2013, his Aunt Teresa organized the first John Ricardo Villarreal blood drive as a way to honor him.

The family has done it every year since, then, getting more support each time.

Along with the blood drive, they also collect toys in honor of their father, John Estrada — Villarreal’s grandfather — who passed away five months after his grandkid.

On Saturday, Dec. 5, the family was at the Knights of Columbus banquet hall, along Maclay Avenue, in San Fernando. A table loaded with toys could be seen by those entering the hall, and there were several technicians from United Blood Services preparing people to donate blood.

“This is my second straight year donating blood. I’ve always donated blood and I wanted to help my family,” said Bobby

Estrada, one of Villarreal’s cousins.

“I wanted to support this cause. Somebody always needs blood,” said Robert Escobedo.

“This is to raise awareness, get the word out that there’s a lot of people who need blood,” commented David Estrada.

Marisela Guerrero of United Blood Services said the donated blood is supplied to Keck Hospital, where Villarreal was treated.

In 2013, they received 30 blood donations. There were 29 last year, and so far this year 39 people have donated.

While those numbers may seem low, Guerrero points out that three lives are saved for every person who donates blood.

And blood is sorely needed around this time of year.

“There are a lot of accidents that happen and unexpected things,” Guerrero said.

For Teresa and the entire family, the annual event is one they hope will last.

“We plan on doing this for as long as we can,” she  said.

“We do it to keep Ricky’s memory alive and to give back for all the help he received. This is a better way to honor him because this can save lives.”

You can still donate even if you didn’t attend the event. To find the nearest blood drive to your house, visit www.unitedblood