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Student gives teacher lifesaving gift

Dance instructor Howard Asao is in good health after a friend donated her kidney

By Kristen Consillio

LAST UPDATED: 10:12 a.m. HST, Dec 18, 2012

THE successor to the Onoe Kiku­nobu Dance Co., a traditional classical Japa­nese dance school in Nuuanu, received the gift of a kidney from someone he never imagined: his colleague and student.

Howard Asao, 66, the future sensei who instructs at a private studio at Hono­lulu Myo­hoji Mission, received a kidney transplant at the Queen's Medical Center on Sept. 25 and has recently gone back to teaching.

His donor, also a Japa­nese dancer at the same school, was 58-year-old Kat Koshi, whom he first met in 1970 as a teacher at Roosevelt High School when she was a student. The two reunited in 1976 when Koshi was taking drama at the University of Hawaii and participated in English kabuki plays, where Asao assisted with choreography.

"Our relationship, as we are interested in Japa­nese dance culture, started in 1976," Asao said. "That's how we kept up our friendship; we danced together onstage several times, but it never dawned on me she would be one who would donate a kidney to me."

Queen's held a news conference Monday with Asao, who performed a traditional Japa­nese dance now that he's fully recovered, and Koshi, who had surgery to remove the kidney at the same time. Both recovered within two months.

Asao, who had renal disease since he was a toddler, couldn't breathe and was hospitalized for kidney failure in 2010 at Pali Momi Medical Center.

He was immediately put on hemodialysis, a machine that filters wastes, salts and fluid from the blood when kidneys can no longer do the job, through a catheter in the neck that goes into the main artery.

Koshi came to visit and asked him what the problem was, and without hesitation told him matter-of-factly that if he needed a kidney, he could have one of hers. They both happened to have the same A-positive blood type.

"There was no hesitation or question about that. You don't get a chance to make a difference in somebody's life too often," said Koshi, a single mother who has a 25-year-old son. "Maybe I'm naive about things, but it didn't seem like that big of a deal to me."

She said her family suffered a situation similar to the recent tragedy in Connecticut decades ago, and "from that point it just shaped our lives."

"You want to be able to make a difference somehow to help some kind of suffering," she said. "This was an opportunity that just came into my lap, and I couldn't pass it by. I'm very grateful."

Asao, who said his quality of life has dramatically improved, now has more energy and is able to eat almost anything he wants.

"Initially I felt kind of apprehensive because it's a big sacrifice for somebody to say, ‘I'll donate part of my body to you,'" he said. "Finally she said, ‘Please take my kidney as a gift.' I would probably still be on dialysis. (The kidney transplant) freed me from the machine, which I needed to be connected to every night before I go to bed. I'm part of her now. It's going to be a lifelong relationship, never to be forgotten."

The Queen's Transplant Center, which opened in March following the abrupt closure of the Hawaii Medical Centers and the only organ transplant center in the Pacific, has completed 11 liver transplants in addition to 17 kidney transplants.

The center expects to receive approval within the next few months from the United Network for Organ Sharing, a private nonprofit that manages transplants for the federal government, to begin pancreas replacements.

The Transplant Institute of the Pacific was shuttered when HMC's Liliha campus went out of business last December, canceling scheduled surgeries and forcing numerous transplant hopefuls to fly to the mainland for organ and bone marrow replacements. Between 45 and 60 transplants were done each year at the center.

The state provided $1.5 million in seed money to help Queen's quickly launch an organ transplant facility to replace the Pacific's only transplant hub. The hospital matched the state funds for the estimated $3 million in startup costs, which included hiring staff and building renovations. Still, Queen's has estimated the facility will result in $7 million to $8 million in losses over the first five years.

There are roughly 400 people awaiting transplants, mostly for kidneys, in Hawaii.

Over the past five years, Hawaii surgeons have completed more than 50 living kidney transplants, said Makoto Ogi­hara, a transplant surgeon at Queen's.

Most of the organs donated locally each year come from people involved in catastrophic accidents, according to the National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii. Those with chronic diseases such as cancer are ineligible to donate their organs.

"We can't manufacture kidneys yet, so we have to rely on someone's good will and love," he said. "For somebody who sacrifices a lot by going through this process, it's just amazing."

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