Yolanda Caluya Domingo was nervous, heart pounding in her chest. As she stood at the lectern at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, about to give the commencement address to her graduating class, she realized it was exactly 11 years ago to the minute that she had been given a second chance. That made her words all the more significant.
Domingo, 52, mother of three and grandmother of seven, received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Hawaii-West Oahu in a ceremony May 14. She found out just a few weeks before graduation that she would be giving the commencement speech. She was scared, but knew what she wanted to say; not the typical road-of-life graduation speech.
She had been a young mom, having her first baby at 17. She worked at McDonald’s for 13 years, going from entry-level positions to manager, before moving on to the Honolulu Club, where she worked her way up to banquet coordinator while holding a part-time job at Sam’s Club near her house in Pearl City. Her life became balancing two jobs, taking her kids to sporting events and feeling tired all the time. When she was diagnosed with heart failure in 1996, it came as a total shock.
"My heart was barely beating," she said. She was forced to quit working, which caused severe financial hardship for her family. Over the next few years, her conditioned deteriorated. At night when she slept — upright on a La-Z-Boy recliner — her husband would check her pulse to see if she was still alive. Her heart was working at only 10 percent capacity.
In 1999, Domingo started preparing for her death. She made funeral arrangements, wrote her own obituary, even made a tape of some of her favorite songs to be played at her memorial service (including Michael Jackson’s "You Are Not Alone"). She put everything in a box, like a kit, even including details on what she wanted her husband to wear to the funeral.
"My family all thought I was nuts," she said, "But I was trying to take care of all those hard choices. I just didn’t want them to have to worry about anything."
Then on May 14, 2000, Domingo got an urgent call from a transplant coordinator at St. Francis West. There was a heart for her, and she needed to come in right away.
Before going into surgery, Domingo said goodbye to her family in case she didn’t make it. Four hours later, she woke up, terrified by the loud thumping in her chest. She asked the nurse what was wrong. Nothing was wrong. It was the new, strong heart. Her own heart had been weak for so long she had forgotten what a healthy heartbeat felt like.
She wouldn’t know her donor’s identity for a year. He was Steven Ginoza, a 28-year-old civil engineer for the Board of Water Supply. Ginoza died in an accidental fall. His family donated his organs, which saved the lives of four people. Over time, the Ginozas and three of Steven’s recipients have become a family, going to parties together and meeting for lunch. When Domingo first met Ginoza’s parents, his mother asked if she could listen to her son’s heart beat. She pressed her head to Domingo’s chest and closed her eyes.
Ginoza’s gift not only saved Domingo’s life, but it also changed her in ways she never anticipated. Suddenly, she had a debt of gratitude she could never repay. Suddenly, she had a new purpose. In her younger days, she never dreamed of college. This fall, she will start graduate school. Her goal is to be a medical social worker, specializing in transplant patients. She wants to help families navigate the complicated journey that she herself has traveled.
"If I could help only one person, I would be so happy," she said.
After her successful heart transplant, there were still more challenges ahead. In 2007, the same year she lost her mother, Domingo was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had two surgeries, radiation and six months of chemotherapy. She talked to her professors. She didn’t want to drop out of school.
"I thought if I stopped school, all I would have to think about was the cancer," she said. She took one class online and did most of her other work at home, sometimes taking her homework with her to chemotherapy appointments. She went to class when she felt well enough to attend.
"I had chemo-brain, which is something they didn’t tell me about," she said. "That’s when I would study for an exam for two weeks and then when I got the test, I wouldn’t even recognize the questions." She says those problems with memory got better over time.
Besides, she wasn’t about to give up, on school or life or anything.
"My cardiologist told me after the transplant that the heart wouldn’t fail me, that if I die it was going to be something else." If Steven’s heart wasn’t going to fail her, she refused to fail Steven’s heart. She became a cancer survivor. She became a college graduate.
Though she rehearsed her speech every night leading up to the commencement ceremony, Domingo didn’t need a script. "My mother always told me when you speak, speak from the heart," she said.
The first words of her speech were to thank her donor, Steven Mitsuo Ginoza, and to dedicate the night to him.
Lee Cataluna can be reached at email@example.com.