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Hilo youth overcomes perilous heart problem, enrolls in college


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Graduation from high school is an exciting occasion in any young person’s life.

But for Natazia Kahunahana, 18, receiving her diploma from Waiakea High School on May 18 meant something more. It was something many people thought she’d never do, including her doctors, dating back to before she was even born.

Her mother, Natalie Kahunahana, was five-and-a-half months pregnant when doctors on Oahu informed her that her baby would be born with a serious heart defect.

“They said, ‘You should go home and terminate,’” she said recently. “But I said I wouldn’t do that. … And no one, no doctors in Hilo, would even see me. They didn’t want the responsibility, so I had to go to Oahu. After she was born, they told us she’d maybe live an hour, and now here she is — 18.”

Known as complex single ventricle, Kahunahana’s condition means that her heart has

only one pumping chamber instead of the usual two. It is a rare, and often deadly condition without surgery. She has had three open-heart surgeries in her life, with the first coming it only four days of age. Her second came at 18 months, and the third when she was 15 years old.

“She’s been through a lot,” her mother said. “She has eight stents in her heart now.”

As an infant, Kahunahana clung to life, battling lung and kidney failures. Each of her heart surgeries were performed by Dr. John Lamberti of Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. The first operation repaired a blocked aorta, the body’s largest artery, which carries blood from the heart to the body. The second helped to normalize the blood flow through the heart.

“I’m feeling much better now,” Natazia said last month when asked about her condition.

The surgeries saved and vastly improved her quality of life, but they also racked up the bills quickly, becoming a financial drain that was hard to deal with. The family appealed to friends, neighbors, and readers of this newspaper to help them defray costs to fly Natazia and other family members back and forth, and to pay for her expensive medical care.

“The help, to me, it was just so awesome,” her mom said. “I was completely overwhelmed — we didn’t even know that putting in the articles would draw so much attention. … I’ve kept in touch with a lot of the people who helped us, I try to send them Christmas cards every year and update them on how Natazia is doing.”

Through all the hardship and the fluctuations in her health, the family clung to the image of seeing Natazia collect her diploma. It was a difficult road, especially with Natazia having to make up all the school work she missed while on trips to Oahu and the mainland for doctor visits.

“She spent so much time in the hospitals … but she always had deadlines to meet,” her mom said.

So when the day finally came, it was an emotional one for the whole family.

“It was really exciting for me,” Natazia said of her graduation ceremony. But for her mother, “she was starting to cry, right from the beginning.”

Her mother admitted openly to the tears: “Oh my God, for me, it was just crying the whole time,” she said with a laugh. “We did it together. She was just as emotional as I was. … She did it. She never gave up.”

Now, Natazia is busy writing the next chapter in her life. Late last month, she attended orientation for Hawaii Community College’s Culinary Arts Program.

“I really enjoy baking,” she said. “Especially a lot of desserts, like birthday cakes or cookies. And mochi. I love mochi.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at


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