The holiday season always reminds Holly Miyagawa that despair can turn to lifesaving hope in a matter of days.
Holly, 47, will be ringing in the new year as Cedars-Sinai’s representative, walking alongside the Donate Life float in the 2018 Rose Parade. But 17 years ago, it was a gathering of relatives at a different kind of new year’s celebration that would change her life, setting her on an unlikely journey to the Tournament of Roses.
“At one time, I thought my life was over. I got so sick, so fast. I didn’t know if I had a future.”
“Today I am happy and healthy, surrounded by friends and family. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if I would be here,” Holly says.
“I knew my kidneys were failing”
In 1986, during a routine physical, doctors noticed 16-year-old Holly had very high blood pressure. After several tests and a visit to a specialist, the high school athlete was told that she had abnormally small kidneys that were functioning at only 50% and that a kidney transplant was in her future.
“It didn’t really hit home with me. I was just a kid. All I cared about was playing volleyball and running track,” Holly recalls.
“Kimi’s amazing gift gave me a future. I love my life.”
By the time she was 29, it became impossible to ignore her diagnosis. During a lively game of beach volleyball in November of 1999, Holly noticed her legs were swelling, and within minutes she could hardly move.
“At that moment, I knew my kidneys were failing. My nephrologist confirmed it and told me that my kidney function was down to 5%,” Holly says. “I needed a transplant soon.”
A few weeks after her collapse on the beach, right before Christmas, Holly began kidney dialysis—which she recalls as the worst part of her illness. There were complications; she lost weight quickly and was getting sicker. She says she couldn’t imagine doing it for very long, but no one in her immediate family was a match for a new kidney.
“That’s what family does”
“I am Japanese-American, and during the holiday season our entire extended family in Southern California always gathers for the Japanese New Year,” Holly said. “We Japanese are private, and we had not told all the family about my serious illness. But I was desperate for help, and my mother decided to tell everyone at the party.”
“Holly and I were not very close, but I didn’t give it a second thought.”
Holly’s cousin, Darlene “Kimi” Navarette, is matter-of-fact when she recalls her decision to be tested to see if she would be a match.
“Holly and I saw each other at family gatherings, but we were actually not very close,” Kimi says. “But I didn’t give it a second thought. That’s what family does, and we are family.”
Kimi was a match, and after several weeks of tests, interviews, and more tests, transplant surgeons at Cedars-Sinai laparoscopically removed one of her healthy kidneys and transplanted the organ into Holly.
Power of transplantation
Holly was back on the beach playing volleyball after 3 months of recovery. The competitive Hermosa Beach resident has since medaled in beach volleyball and track at the World Transplant Games and the Transplant Games of America.
“I remember Holly Miyagawa very well,” says Dr. Stanley C. Jordan, medical director of the Kidney Transplant Program at Cedars-Sinai. “She is a great testament to the power of transplantation, and the efficacy of good anti-rejection medications, to change lives for the better.”
The gift of time
Holly says her participation in the Rose Parade is in honor of her donor and cousin, Kimi. The theme of this year’s Donate Life float is “The Gift of Time,” and the veteran athlete says she is proud to pay tribute to the healthcare professionals, family members, friends, and even strangers who have given so much to transplant patients.
“At one time, I thought my life was over,” reflects Holly. “I got so sick, so fast. I didn’t know if I had a future. Kimi’s amazing gift gave me a future. I love my life.”