Newswise — LOS ANGELES (Dec. 26, 2017) — The holiday season always reminds Holly Miyagawa that despair can turn to lifesaving hope in a matter of days.

Miyagawa, 47, will be ringing in the new year as Cedars-Sinai’s representative walker alongside the Donate Life float in the nation’s largest New Year’s Day 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. 

“Today I am happy and healthy, surrounded by friends and family. If it wasn’t for one of them, I don’t know if I would be here,” Miyagawa says. 

In 1986, during a routine high school physical for sports, doctors noticed then 16-year-old Miyagawa had very high blood pressure. After several tests and a visit to a specialist, the two-sport high school athlete was told that she had abnormally small kidneys that were functioning at only 50 percent, 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,” Miyagawa recalls. 

But by the time she was 29 years old, it became impossible to ignore her diagnosis. During a lively game of beach volleyball in November of 1999, Miyagawa 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 percent,” Miyagawa recalls. “I needed a transplant soon.” 

A few weeks after her collapse on the beach, right before Christmas, Miyagawa began kidney dialysis — which she recalls as being the worst part of her illness. There were complications. She lost weight quickly and was getting sicker. The commercial real estate executive says she could not imagine doing it for very long. Unfortunately, no one in her immediate family was a match for a new kidney.

“I am Japanese-American and during the holiday season, our entire extended family in Southern California always gathers for the Japanese New Year,” Miyagawa 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.”

Miyagawa’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,” Navarette says.

“But I didn’t give it a second thought. That’s what family does, and we are family.”

Navarette 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 on March 6, 2000. 

“The hardest part of all the testing and pre-transplant prep was giving up my daily Diet Cokes for so long! The rest of it was easy. I went home a day after I donated my kidney and have never had a problem,” Navarette said.

Miyagawa says she was back on the beach playing volleyball after three months of recovery. The competitive Hermosa Beach resident has medaled in volleyball and track at the World Transplant Games and the Transplant Games of America. She says she takes the same anti-organ rejection medications to protect her kidneys that she did 17 years ago.

“I remember Holly Miyagawa very well,” said Stanley C. Jordan, MD, 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.”

Miyagawa says her participation in the Rose Parade is in honor of her donor-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 so many transplant patients. 

“At one time, I thought my life was over,” reflects Miyagawa. 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.” 

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