POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 8, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 1:27 p.m. HST, May 19, 2011
Rachael Wong didn't have a typical college experience. While other students were hitting the books and going to parties, she was dealing with blood disorders, chemotherapy, a brain infection and dialysis after being diagnosed with lupus during her first month at Princeton University.
"I was 18 years old and didn't have a lot of coping skills. ... I was thrust into a different reality and thought I was dying. I really needed to prioritize what's important in life," said Wong, 39.
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that affects organ systems, skin, joints and internal organs. Wong's illness ravaged her kidneys, and she was placed on a transplant list. "I forgot what it was like to feel well and be healthy," the Honolulu resident recalls.
Despite her health challenges, Wong earned a degree in East Asian studies and a certificate in women's studies at Princeton. In 1998 she married Brad Chun, now an internist at Kokua Kalihi Valley.
In 2002, while still waiting for a kidney transplant, Wong was accepted into the master's program at the University of Hawaii. It was then that she received the call that a kidney was available from a child who had died in an accident. "I've never met my donor family, but I send them letters of gratitude every year," she said. "The gift of life gave me a second chance, and perhaps it was their darkest hour. I'm ever grateful that they were able to make this decision during their grief."
Her letters include updates of all the things that she has been able to accomplish since the transplant, such as the gold medals she won in tennis and racquetball at the U.S. Transplant Games and new activities she tried such as surfing lessons. "Thanks to my donor, I don't have any restrictions in what I do anymore," Wong said.
"I am feeling stronger and healthier with each passing year. I don't feel like I've reached my potential."
A positive outlook and maintaining a healthy body through proper diet and exercise were essential for Wong to endure the transplant, she said. She regularly participated in yoga classes even while infirm. "I went to class on crutches when my feet were swollen. I even went in with catheter tubes. I would do the standing poses while lying down. They would always adapt the poses for me," she said.
She went on to complete her master's degree in public health and will graduate in May from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's executive doctorate program in health leadership. As part of her doctoral program, she is studying use of alternative and complementary medicine by organ transplant recipients. Wong said she hopes to increase understanding of recipient needs and improve patient care.
"The gift of life not only saved me, but also gave me an opportunity to make a positive impact in the transplant community," she said.
For more information on organ donation, visit www.donatelifehawaii.com.
"Be Well" is a new monthly column spotlighting people who have overcome health challenges. Reach Nancy Arcayna at email@example.com or 529-4808.