To the end, he brought inspiration

The young man fought cancer for eight years, seeking to complete what he saw as his mission.

Published June 2, 2006

CARROLLWOOD - Ovidio Mendez Jr. was only 11 years old when he learned he had cancer. He accepted the news with strength that few adults could have mustered. And he continued to show that kind of strength for the rest of his short life.

"When he was first diagnosed," said his mother, Yolanda Mendez, "he said to me 'Mom, God has something special for me to do here.' He knew he had a special mission on this earth."

Mr. Mendez died Friday (May 11 2006) at age 19. To people who knew him, his special mission was obvious.

"We all got strength and courage from him," his mother said. "And when his job on earth was finished, he was called home."

Mr. Mendez was the son of a prominent Tampa pediatrician and the nephew of the owner of Havana Village Restaurant near Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard. For the past eight years, he had severe osteoporosis and partial vision loss, both brought on by chemotherapy treatments during his first bout with T-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

But he never complained. In fact, he devoted much of his life to community service, working with underprivileged children through the Key Club at Jesuit High School and helping younger kids at the Children's Cancer Center.

He even showed up at Walk for Life, a cancer fundraiser April 19, his 19th birthday, at Greco Middle School, shortly before his death. He was too sick to participate, but he wanted to show his support.

His proudest accomplishment was graduating from Jesuit last year. At the time of his death, he was studying at Hillsborough Community College. His family lives in Carrollwood.

"He wanted to be a lawyer," his mother said. "He really loved law enforcement, but he knew that physically he would never be able to be a law enforcement officer, so he wanted to be a lawyer."

From age 11 through 13, Mr. Mendez underwent chemotherapy treatments every week. The treatments were successful, and the cancer was in remission for several years.

In fact, except for the partial loss of vision in his right eye and stress fractures in his vertebrae from the osteoporosis, he remained in relatively good health until earlier this year. In February, doctors told him his cancer had returned.

The treatment that held the most hope was a bone marrow transplant, and his younger brother Danny turned out to be a perfect match.

Mr. Mendez received his brother's bone marrow May 4. But his system had been so compromised by extensive chemotherapy that the transplant couldn't take hold. A week later, Mr. Mendez passed away.

A few days later, Jesuit High School hosted a two-day memorial in his honor. About 3,000 people paid their respects to the young man who had always put others ahead of himself, even while he was facing death.

"In his 19 years, Ovi was a tremendous force in this community," his mother said. "Those 3,000 people, the one thing they all commented about was his strength and courage. I don't know where he got that. He didn't get it from us, because we're not that courageous."

Mr. Mendez is survived by his parents; two brothers, Edward and Daniel; and three grandparents.