How his daughter's heart transplant helped restore boxer Steve Cunningham's 'fight'

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It’s been a few months now, time that in the Cunningham household is best measured by the decreasing number of visits 9-year-old Kennedy Cunningham makes to the doctor.

This summer Kennedy began to grow again, and her father delights in taking her to the gym, where she likes to hit the heavy bag while he trains for one of the biggest fights of his career.

“She’s doing normal little girl stuff,” Steve Cunningham said. “There are days like this when you don’t even think about those bad days.”

There were plenty of those for Kennedy, who was born with a rare heart defect that hospitalized her for the first year of her life. The worst came last summer, when Cunningham and his wife, Livvy, were told by doctors in Philadelphia that the best thing they could do their daughter and her failing heart was to take her home and make her last days as comfortable as possible.

“Basically we were supposed to wait for her to expire,” said Cunningham, who fights Antonio Tarver in a heavyweight bout on Friday at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. “It was like the end of the world is happening in two hours or 10 weeks. There’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself for that.”

There’s a trace of bitterness in Cunningham’s voice when he tells this part of the story. The doctors had given up, he said, believing even a heart transplant wasn’t an option because Kennedy would likely bleed to death in the operating room.

The Cunninghams, though, weren’t going to give up as easily. They’re a fighting family, and they went to Pittsburgh, in desperate search of a second opinion.

Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh gave them what they wanted. Though they warned the family there was a good chance Kennedy might die in surgery, they put her on the list to receive a new heart.

On Dec. 4, they got a call to come to the hospital. The next day, Kennedy was getting her new heart.

“We were in the waiting area praying, singing and enjoying each other’s company while she’s getting her heart taken out of her chest and getting another put in,” Cunningham said. “A lot of times that doesn’t work out well and we were preparing ourselves for the bad as well as the good. We knew it was a possibility this was the last time we saw our daughter.”

For a few of the other children receiving transplants that week in Pittsburgh, things didn’t go as well. Cunningham said he knew of one that died, and another was expected to die.

“Kennedy was the only one who did well,” he said.

His daughter did so well she received a day pass to come home for Christmas. A week later, she was home for good, a new heart from another young girl whose circumstances Cunningham didn’t ask too many questions about.

The expenses were tremendous, though most were covered by a Pennsylvania state program for uninsured children. Thanks to a fellow fighter who Cunningham beat last year, the family also had enough money to live on while away from home caring for their daughter.

Amir Mansour had put Cunningham down twice in the fifth round of their fight in April 2014, only to lose a decision to him in Philadelphia. Instead of complaining about the judges in his postfight television interview, however, Mansour made a plea to help the Cunningham family and their daughter.

“The interview could have been about what he should have done or what the judges should have done but it was just about my daughter,” Cunningham said. “I think in 30 days we had $20,000 in that fund. We were able to be prepared because of boxing fans who donated because of what he said. We’re grateful for that.”

Kennedy Cunningham continues to do well, her father said. She loves to swim — something she couldn’t do before because she had a drip line into her heart — and likes to go to the gym with her father. The family is moving to Pittsburgh so she can be close to the doctors who saved her life, but so far all her checkups have been positive.

Steve Cunningham, meanwhile, returns to the ring against Tarver in a fight he hopes will boost his heavyweight chances. He’s 39 and has mostly fought as a cruiserweight after serving four years in the Navy, never making much money in winning 28 fights against seven losses.

He believes he can get another good fight or two, then begin training other fighters, including his teen-age son. For now, though, he’s not only glad for another chance in the ring, but for the chance doctors took on his daughter.

“Months later here we are with a vibrant girl,” he said. “These doctors had hope and so did we. I’m feeling so blessed, it’s just beyond how I can explain it.”

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