‘She’s like a sister to me’: Stem cell donor, recipient form lifelong bond

Hutch News

‘She’s like a sister to me’

Stem cell donor and recipient form a lifelong bond

March 9, 2016
Stem cell donor Sophia Kawada and recipient Todd Hirai

Stem cell donor Sophia Kawada with recipient Todd Hirai on the Fred Hutch campus.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

When Sophia Kawada traveled to Seattle for a work conference last fall, she told her office she’d be staying with a friend. But it wasn’t an old friend from school or a friend of her family — she’d be staying with Todd Hirai, the man whose life she had saved with a stem cell donation.

Kawada, 24, spent her days in Seattle at an information technology workshop but the rest of the time with Hirai and his family, playing board games, enjoying meals and driving down to Portland, Oregon to visit Hirai’s daughter, a freshman at George Fox University.

But just getting to do those normal things seemed like an impossible dream to Hirai four years ago, when he needed a stem cell transplant to treat his multiple myeloma. At the time, he simply wanted to live long enough to see his daughter graduate from high school, watch his two sons’ sports games and see the Huskies beat the Cougars in the new Husky Stadium.

Kawada, then a student at Soka University in Orange County, California who had signed up for the bone marrow registry, was studying for finals when she started getting phone calls asking her about donating.

Seven phone calls

At the time she was waiting to find out if she’d been accepted into a study-abroad program in Guatemala so held off on returning the calls until she knew if she would be in the country to donate.  Meanwhile, the calls kept coming.  And coming.

She returned the seventh call around the time she found out the study-abroad program was full.

“(The woman) said, ‘This is the last time I’m going to try to get in contact with you’ and I called her back,” Kawada said. “My donation date was actually during finals week, but I thought OK I’m going to do it… It was right after one final and right before another final, I just squeezed it in there.”

‘She’s like a sister to me now’

In November 2013, Kawada received an email from Hirai saying he’d like to speak with her on the phone and potentially fly her up to Seattle to meet in person. Kawada was initially skeptical about flying up the coast to meet a stranger, but she decided to go anyway.

When she got off the plane her skepticism vanished; she was met with warm hugs from a smiling family. Hirai, his wife and three kids showed Kawada around Seattle, brought her into family game nights and welcomed her into their church.

“That's when it hit me,” Kawada said. “Without putting that face to that voice and that name to that face I would not have realized the impact had I made… It wasn't really that big of a deal on my end but it was lifesaving for him.”

Since their first meeting, Kawada and Hirai, 50, have built a strong connection.

“Sophia is really a like a sister to me now,” Hirai said. “(A sister who) has given me not only a new breath of life but we have also a deep connection and bond.”

Not only are the two genetically similar, but Hirai also noted their similarities in terms of their extroverted personalities, love for certain foods such as dim sum, Hawaiian food and anything sweet, and a common interest in Japanese history and culture.    

“She and I do appreciate our Japanese heritage,” Hirai said. “The fact that we are such a close HLA match for compatibility we believe our ancestors originating from the Okinawa area of Japan has a lot to do with that.” HLA stands for human leukocyte antigen, a protein, or marker, found in most cells. HLA typing is used to match patients with donors.

‘I hope it lasts a lifetime’

Kawada said despite Hirai’s initial low chance of survival, he’s full of life and she feels lucky to have this unique type of friend.

Kawada’s donation kept Hirai in remission for three years, which his doctors predicted. They said after 36 months there was a high probability for the cancer to return. A few months ago, doctors found a new noncancerous lesion on his hip, for which he is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

“They said (the transplant) would only increase his life span three to five years but he’s here now going into his fifth year,” Kawada said. “I hope it lasts a lifetime and that we can always keep in contact.”

Hirai described Kawada as a blessing that came out of his cancer diagnosis and said that he’s thankful for her and for everyone who has been by his side during his ongoing treatments. He described his cancer fight as a football game where the support of his fans, like Sophia, his family and his friends, gives him the strength to keep playing.

“Cancer is like a football game but you’re the only player on the field and cancer is on the other side,” he said.  “On the sidelines you’ve got your friends, your family, your church, all praying for you, and you have to stay positive ... The fight, the game of cancer, is never perfect and many times falls short of working long term but I truly believe in my team at the Hutch, University of Washington and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.”

Contributing writer Megan Herndon is a senior at the University of Washington, where she is majoring in journalism, minoring in French and pursuing a Certificate of Sales. Reach her at mherndon@fredhutch.org.

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