Lorena Diego would not hesitate to give more kidneys if she could.
Eddie Ralar was going through five hours of dialysis three days a week until Diego donated a kidney to him, becoming the first person in Hawaii to donate an organ to a stranger. That was 10 years ago this month.
"After I recovered from the surgery, it’s been fine," Diego said. "I feel a connection. I gained a new family through Eddie."
About 12 others have followed in Diego’s footsteps in the islands, dramatically improving the quality of life for the organ recipients, but more than 400 people in Hawaii are still on a waiting list for an organ transplant, said Diana Pinard, director of organizational planning and operations for the National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii. About 92 percent of them need a kidney.
The foundation is trying to sign up more people to arrange for their organs to be donated after death. To promote awareness of the fight against kidney disease, the foundation held an event Thursday, World Kidney Day, at Ala Moana Center Court. The foundation is also holding a free kidney screening at Ala Moana Hotel on Friday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to pre-register.
Pinard said it is important to educate people about chronic kidney disease — which can be caused by diabetes, high blood pressure and heredity, among other conditions — because it is irreversible. People whose kidneys have stopped working must go on dialysis or get an organ transplant. More than 3,000 Hawaii residents are on dialysis.
Despite the long hours for dialysis, many people still live normal lives and are "heroes … because they go through the suffering every day, and they just keep going," Pinard said.
When Diego donated her kidney on March 20, 2002, she was looking for a way to give back after having relied on charity when she was raising her two boys in the 1980s. Diego’s only stipulation was that her kidney stay in Hawaii.
She and Ralar were a 100 percent match. After meeting, they found they had several things in common, such as being the same age and each having a daughter named Nohea.
"If I had more (kidneys), I would certainly do it again," Diego said, adding that she has become friends with others who have donated organs to strangers.
Ralar, who lives on Maui, said the donation has been a blessing that’s allowed him to spend more time with his family and four grandkids, work a full-time job as a chef and perform Hawaiian music with his wife several nights a week. Ralar and Diego continue to see each other on special occasions throughout the year.
Ralar said doctors are amazed at how well he’s doing, which he said is all "thanks to Lorena, my angel."