Gift of life


By COLIN M. STEWART

Tribune-Herald staff writer

The Hirata and Toma families believe it was the hand of God that brought the two of them together: a man in desperate need of a kidney and a woman born with three.

The first signs of trouble for 46-year-old Gregg Hirata, a boys baseball coach and an employee of Hawaii National Bank, surfaced more than 20 years ago, when he visited his doctor seeking relief from a routine cold. A urinalysis revealed telltale signs of chronic kidney disease.

Over many years, his kidney function continued to decrease to the point that now, his kidneys are only filtering about 11 percent of the blood toxins they should be.

Hirata’s father and Hirata’s wife, Leanne, had both tried to donate a kidney, but were disqualified by doctors for various reasons. And the couple decided early on that they wouldn’t accept a donation from one of their three boys — Trevor, 14, Devon, 11, and Mason, 8.

“They’re still young,” Leanne Hirata, 45, explained. “We don’t want to ask them.”

But in March of this year, Hilo resident Angie Toma, 46, found herself paired with Leanne Hirata as they kept score for their 11-year-old boys’ baseball game in Keaukaha. They were up in the press box, with Hirata manning the scoreboard and Toma keeping the score book while Gregg Hirata was on the sidelines with his team.

As they were working, Toma told Hirata that she needed to use the restroom, but she didn’t want to leave her while the game was going on.

“I asked her, ‘Are you OK?’ and she goes, ‘Oh, I’ll be OK. I have three kidneys,’” Hirata said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, you should give one to Gregg.’”

Hirata said she was only joking, but Toma immediately took an interest.

“Why? What’s wrong?” Toma asked.

Although Gregg Hirata was gravely ill, by all outward appearances he was perfectly healthy, Leanne Hirata explained. He had continued to coach and maintain the majority of his busy work and recreational schedule. The couple hadn’t really discussed his illness with many folks, and so it came as a shock to Toma.

She explained Gregg’s illness, and Toma immediately saw a connection to her own unique kidney situation. She says that for as long as she can remember, she was aware that she had an extra kidney.

“I’ve known since I was 3 years old I had an extra one. I had extensive testing done,” she said. “Instantaneously, I just wanted to give him my kidney.”

The fact that she had an extra kidney made the decision that much easier to make, she explained.

“I thought of his three sons not having a father, I thought of Leanne not having a husband. I just knew that that was what I wanted to do. … It’s hard to make sense of it. The only way I could describe it was that it was God,” Toma said.

Leanne Hirata says she was incredulous that this woman would be willing to make such a sacrifice.

“I was overjoyed. There was disbelief. The adrenaline was rushing through me,” she said. “I would have shouted if there wasn’t a game going on.”

Hirata immediately texted her husband on the field, who said he was floored by the offer.

“Usually, you think it would be an immediate family member or somebody like that. Never someone outside the family. Because they’re risking their life,” he said.

He added that by receiving a donated kidney, he would be able to continue his active lifestyle, interacting with his three boys, and coaching them and other children in sports.

“I’m so thankful. It’s kinda like, you’ll be free again. You won’t be in a prison.”

Toma and the Hiratas got to know each other well over the ensuing months, and Toma’s resolve to donate her kidney never wavered, she says, through being poked, prodded and tested, and being stuck with needles, which is a particularly strong phobia for her.

She even remained on board after learning during testing that the extra kidney she was counting on was no longer there.

“During the testing process they learned that the two kidneys on my left side had conjoined as I got older,” she said. “But when they told me that, I didn’t even hesitate. No second thoughts. I still really wanted to give him a kidney.”

Toma says that people often balk at donating a kidney because of the fact that should they have an accident or illness, and their only remaining kidney is damaged, they could find themselves in a dangerous predicament. But, she said, concern for her own well-being didn’t factor into her decision.

“People tell me that not a lot of people would do what I’m going to do. But that’s hard for me to understand. Yes they would. They would. There’s so many good people, and so many things you can do to help someone,” she said.

Toma said she hopes that her story will convince others to consider donating a kidney to someone in need.

“There would be so much more life-saving going on if people became aware of how easy it is,” she said.

As it turns out, Toma’s kidneys are not a match for Gregg Hirata’s, so although she will be donating a kidney, he will not be its direct recipient. Instead, Hirata will be matched with another donor pair who are also not matches for each other. Right now, they’re just waiting to hear word from the University of California at San Francisco about finding a match, and then they will fly out for the procedure.

Meanwhile, Hilo’s church community is getting behind the Toma and Hirata families to provide a prayer network and support for the pending organ transplant.

Glad Tidings Church will host a Thanksgiving 2012 E Pule Kakou gathering on Sunday at 5 p.m. at Aunty Sally Kaleohano’s Luau Hale, at 799 Piilani St. in Hilo. Speakers will include Glen Hayashida, the state director of the National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii, who will discuss the latest developments on the kidney transplantation process. A short documentary video will also be shown, telling the story of Gregg Hirata’s planned transplant.

Hirata added that he and his family have been very thankful for all the support they have already received, but he said that they are not seeking monetary donations. Instead, he said, they are just asking for thoughts and prayers from the community.

“I don’t want this to be a fundraiser,” he said. “All I want is to spread awareness, and to give testimony on my walk with God. I only recently became a Christian, and the circumstances of this situation are amazing. I could spend all day talking about all the things that had to happen for this to transpire, from Angie thinking she had three kidneys, to (Leanne and Angie) keeping score together that day. …

“Yeah, it’s been great,” he added. “Like hitting the lottery.”

For more information on the E Pule Kakou event, call Glad Tidings Church at (808) 961-0616.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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