John Menchaca was 30 when he got sick from a liver infection and remembered how his older sister, Dora Menchaca, took it upon herself to contact the public health department in Los Angeles County to begin tracing the source of his illness.
It was Hepatitis-A. He had gotten it from a place he had eaten in Mexico. He remembered more about how determined she was to track the source of the infection than he did about how sick he was then.
“Science and research wasn’t just a profession or a job to her,” he said. “She was all in from the beginning.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic having its grip on the world for more than a year-and-a-half now, Menchaca thinks about what his sister might be doing about that today. He said he imagines she’d be on the front lines of trying to understand and explain the science behind the virus. He can almost hear her talking about how exciting the vaccines were and how she’d be urging the importance of social distancing and mask-wearing.
And then he starts to get choked up because, even 20 years later, the death of his sister remains raw.
Dora Menchaca was 45 when she boarded American Airlines Flight 77 headed from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He said she was supposed to land that day and see her husband, Earl Dorsey and their two children, Imani and Jaryd.
But like nearly 3,000 others on that day, she never made it home.
Instead, John said all he has now are photos and a tribute binder he can’t quite bring himself to put together. He relies mostly on his memories of her now. But while the nation remembers collectively the tragedy of 9/11, John said he remembers Dora every day.
“She still comes up in conversations all the time with my family,” he said. “Something always seems to bring her to mind.”
And he is reminded again how much he misses her.
John Menchaca was four years younger than Dora, but he remembered growing up in San Antonio with her and how she was always there to help him with his studies. Education was a premium ideal growing up in the Menchaca family.
“She was a voracious reader. Constantly reading,” he said. “Not just textbooks, either. Every Sunday, her and my dad would sit and go through the entire newspaper in San Antonio – front to back – and discuss what was going on for two or three hours. She had this inquisitive mind and was incredibly curious.”
He said he remembered her being patient with him while helping with his math homework. He said it was no surprise to anyone that as she went through high school, she was going to college. Menchaca said she was always a high achiever and when she was accepted to the University of Notre Dame, the whole family drove up with her in an old Volkswagen bus to see her off.
Menchaca said it was the first time they’d ever been outside the state of Texas.
“I remember when we crossed the Mississippi and it took us by surprise at how big it was,” he said. “We thought the bridge would never end.”
The drive back after dropping her off felt longer. He missed her. But, he said, they drove up again for her graduation from the University of Notre Dame in 1977 and their parents were proud. So was her younger brother, who could see she was on her way to bigger things.
Even as their careers diverged – she went on to the University of North Carolina for her master’s in public health and then UCLA for a doctorate in epidemiology and he was studying to become an accountant – they stayed close.
In the early 1980s, the two shared an apartment together in West Los Angeles while she was still at UCLA and when she gave birth to Imani, he said he got to spend time with his niece while in that apartment. She completed her doctorate in 1986, according to the UCLA Daily Bruin.
The time in the apartment, he said, was filled with great memories. She had plants in the apartment – a foreshadowing of a gardening hobby she would continue at her home in Santa Monica. John mostly recalled how she seemed to balance so much with patience and grace.
He didn’t know it at the time, but he said at a memorial for Dora after the 9/11 tragedy, a woman approached him. She told him about how Dora had played soccer with a bunch of guys and that when one of the player’s wives had gotten ill, Dora wrote the husband a letter in Spanish and sent coupons to restaurants and supermarkets.
“The woman told me Dora gave the gift of time,” he said. “Instead of wasting time running around to stores and restaurants, that time could be spent with his sick wife.”
When John Menchaca got married in 1987, he said Dora's daughter was the flower girl at the wedding. After Dora married, he would visit his sister in Santa Monica. He said his two older daughters would visit “Aunt Dora” and always had a good time with her.
He said she was always great with his children – and especially with hers.
“She would be proud of them,” he said. “They’re both good quality people. Very caring and very responsible and very in touch with life. They took up professions that are meaningful and are going to help humanity.”
Moment Frozen in Time
Dora Menchaca worked hard at Amgen as a director of clinical research and had this inner drive to research a cure for cancer. Her father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and she was relentless in her pursuit of finding a cure to help those with similar illnesses.
Dora Menchaca was in Washington D.C. briefing U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials on some cancer research the day before on Sept. 10. But John Menchaca said she had been talking about wanting to spend more time with her family and so she caught an earlier flight home on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
It was American Airlines Flight 77.
John Menchaca said he can still remember everything about that morning. He woke up and both he and his wife watched in disbelief as the smoke poured from the World Trade Center. He said he remembered talk of Los Angeles being a possible target and how he was going to get to the office to make sure everyone there was OK.
“I hadn’t sat down two minutes and my phone rang,” he said. “It was my dad and he says right away he’s got some bad news; Dora was on one of the planes. He started crying.”
The world shifted at that point for John Menchaca. His sister was dead at 45. The pain that began that day would never really leave.
A year after the attacks, he went to a memorial at Amgen and saw the marker that honors her. Five years after the attacks, he turned 46 – one year past his older sister’s final age. Ten years after, he was going to several memorials for 9/11 victims. Last year, because of COVID-19, he stayed at home with his family – something for which he believes she would have advocated.
But 20 years seems like a long time ago and, alternately, not long ago at all. And for John Menchaca, it’s a moment frozen in time, thawed by grief and scarred forever.