Paulo Pono says he would go the distance to help a family member — and he means that both figuratively and literally.
Pono, a native of the Philippines, traveled 7,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean this month to donate a kidney to his cousin, Bianca Santos, at Sharp Memorial Hospital.
“I’m so happy that my cousin is OK,” says Pono, age 31. “She was the first thing that came to my mind when I woke up.”
As a child in the Philippines, Santos developed a rare disorder called Henoch-Schönlein purpura that damaged her kidneys. She received treatment to manage the condition there, but her parents knew she would need more specialized care as the disorder progressed. The family moved to the United States when Santos was 15.
Now age 30 and working as an engineer at Qualcomm, Santos’ kidney function eventually declined to only 11 percent. Her doctors said it was time for a transplant. Neither Santos’ mother nor father, a systems analyst at Sharp HealthCare, were matches to donate their kidneys, so they reached out to family, friends and co-workers.
Initially, Pono was hesitant about donating, but he reflected on his father’s desire to help Santos. Pono’s father died when he was a young child. Before his death, he always told Santos he would give her a kidney if she needed one.
“I feel he wanted me to do this, to fulfill his promise to my cousin,” Pono says.
It’s rare for a hospital to accept an organ donation from someone living abroad because it can be more difficult to follow up with them after surgery, says Tammy Wright, a transplant coordinator at Sharp Memorial’s Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Center.
However, the transplant team is confident Pono will stay in touch. Besides Pono’s close connection with his cousin, several members of his family are doctors, nurses and hospital administrators in the Philippines, and they are committed to keeping Pono healthy.
As for Santos, she is looking forward to a lifetime of more energy and better health.
“I’m forever grateful to Paulo,” Santos says. “He just saved my life. There is no other way to say it.”
Nearly 100,000 people nationwide are waiting for a new kidney. Kidney donations from a living person — called a “living donation” — help shorten the national transplant list, so another person can get a deceased donor kidney sooner. Survival rates are also significantly better for people who receive transplants from living donors. Learn more about organ donation.
For the news media: To talk with Bianca and Paulo for an upcoming news story, or to speak with a transplant surgeon about living kidney donation, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.