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Wednesday, July 30, 2014         

INCIDENTAL LIVES


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Donor provided ailing man with liver and 'second birth'

By Michael Tsai

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Each night, Aaron Okubo would watch the news from his hospital bed, his mind churning with crosscurrents of hope and dread.

Just 52 at the time, he was weeks, perhaps days, away from bidding final farewell to his wife and two sons. His liver and kidneys had started to fail. A tube down his throat and a 24-hour hookup to a dialysis machine kept him alive, but his only real shot at staying that way was a transplant.

And he knew what that meant.

"The hard thing is that to get a liver, someone has to die," Okubo says. "I had a lot of mixed feelings about that."

Okubo's life had been happily unremarkable to that point. A country-style childhood shared with four siblings in their native Hilo. A love of baseball that spanned Little League, high school and the AJA leagues. A move to the "big city" of Honolulu to attend Chaminade University. A career in the travel industry. Later, a loving wife, Shelly, and two smart, polite, athletic kids, Shane and Austin.

No prude when it came to the temptations of the local plate lunch, Okubo admits he had always been "heavy." Yet, even as he developed diabetes and high blood pressure, Okubo found it difficult to change a way of life in which the bricks of family, friends and community are mortared together by copious servings of high-fat food.

Four years ago the warning signs gave way to a real emergency. Okubo, then packing 260 pounds on his 5-foot-7 frame, began swelling with fluid. He spent five days in a hospital to have the water drained from his lungs, but the relief was temporary. Tests determined that Okubo had developed cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver often associated with heavy drinking. (Okubo doesn't drink, but his poor dietary habits had the same effect.)

Okubo was placed on the transplant list and underwent a series of evaluations to determine whether he was a viable candidate for transplant. He was in the middle of a psychiatric exam when he had to be rushed to the hospital.

Okubo spent more than a month waiting for a donor, never sure that one would be found in time. As his condition worsened, he told his then-15-year-old son Shane to look after the family. Some nights, he would ask Shelly to stay with him in his room.

Then, at 5:30 a.m. July 29, Okubo and his family received word that a suitable donor had been located. Okubo was in surgery that afternoon.

Now 56 and a relatively svelte 200 pounds, Okubo honors the anonymous donor whose organ lives on in his body by taking care of his health.

"You want to make every day a good day," he says. "It's like your second birth. You have to make the most of it."

Okubo watches his diet and makes sure to exercise regularly. He also does whatever he can to support Legacy of Life (formerly the Organ Donor Center of Hawaii).

"There are 110,000 people in the U.S. still waiting (for a transplant)," he says. "It's important that I do whatever I can."

For more information on organ donation, visit legacyoflife.org.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@staradvertiser.com.






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