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Friday, June 14, 2002

Transplant teaches Kono a lesson

Lawmaker's trauma prompts him to push for better care


Staff writer

Although Taro Kono was determined from the beginning to save his father's life by donating part of his liver, the 39-year-old lawmaker of the Liberal Democratic Party said the decision-making process was tough for his family, even with a fair amount of knowledge about the procedure.

News photo
Lawmaker Taro Kono speaks in his Diet office about his recent experience in donating part of his liver to his father, former Foreign Minister Yohei Kono.

The choice is not necessarily always a clear one for families facing a similar situation because circumstances vary, Kono said in an interview.

"It is the kind of decision that should be made after thoroughly examining pertinent information from a variety of perspectives, in a quiet environment, and without any pressure," he said.

In mid-April, Kono, a parliamentary secretary at the Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, gave a third of his liver to his 65-year-old father, Yohei. The former foreign minister and leader of a small LDP faction was suffering from terminal cirrhosis of the liver caused by hepatitis C.

The younger Kono in early January consulted with doctors about the possibility of donating part of his liver, a procedure effectively considered the last resort to save his father.

Having studied thoroughly about organ transplants when the Diet had a major dispute over organ transplant legislation in 1997, the younger Kono knew that living donors' livers would grow back to their original size in several months' time, he said.

Being the eldest son, Kono said he didn't want his family to relive the pain they went through when they lost their mother to cancer seven years ago.

"This time, we wanted to do something, even though we were aware of the possibility that it may not work," Kono said.

While his determination was firm, Kono said he felt sorry for his wife, who had to worry about what would happen to him, especially at a time when she had just learned she had become pregnant for the first time in their nine-year marriage.

"Although the doctors said most living donors have recovered to almost the same health condition as before a transplant, it's natural to worry about what may happen to me in 20 years. Who knows? There may be a chance that it won't be exactly the same as before," Kono said. "It was a very hard time for her to accept my decision."

Initially, Yohei Kono flatly rejected the idea of his son removing part of his body in order to save him. But his son strongly persuaded him to accept the transplant and survive as a father and a would-be grandfather.

The partial liver transplant was successfully performed at Shinshu University Hospital in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, one of the nation's leading liver transplant hospitals.

Taro Kono said he experienced enormous pain soon after the surgery. The pain tapered off as his liver stabilized, but his stomach was bent when it fell into the area where the liver area was removed. This complication was explained to him in advance, Kono said, adding that the problem was corrected by repositioning the stomach by way of an endoscope inserted through his mouth.

The younger Kono, who has been back at work since mid-May, had his final checkup at the hospital late last month. He is in good condition and said his father's recovery has been smooth. A decision will probably come this month about when the elder Kono can leave the hospital.

Having gone through the tough decision and experience, which resulted in his father's recovery, Taro Kono is concerned that, with the recent increase in hepatitis C patients, a number of them and their families face a similar transplant decision.

Although medical advances, including those pertaining to organ transplants, have saved or prolonged the life of terminally ill patients, the choice of whether to be a living donor (assuming compatibility is not an issue) depends on various factors, including the health of the donor, the family situation and finances.

Kono believes all pertinent information regarding such treatment must be clearly provided. In this sense, he harshly criticized media reports that praised his decision and solely described the son-to-father transplant as "a moving family love story."

"If people only come to regard a partial liver transplant as a mere 'love story,' such superficial awareness could add unnecessary pressure on families in the same situation," he said.

Experts estimate there are some 2 million hepatitis C patients in Japan. The infection can eventually develop into cancer or cirrhosis of the liver that can only be treated by a transplant.

To provide treatment as early as possible, the government in April began testing for hepatitis C infection as part of basic health checks for people older than 40.

While early treatment is vital, Kono is also concerned about the situation surrounding patients with terminal liver diseases, whose numbers are expected to increase. Many will be left with the same decision of last resort that his family had to face.

Through his experience, Kono said he has learned a number of lessons about what is necessary to help people with viral hepatitis, including hepatitis C. As a politician, he hopes to improve the nation's medical environment surrounding such patients.

"Although the government has begun screening for hepatitis, it has not yet taken any major steps to improve the support and treatment infrastructure," he said.

To rectify this, Kono said he hopes to work with other lawmakers to launch a nonpartisan group to study such issues as the possibility of standardizing treatment and medication, providing drug manufacturers with financial support to develop new medicine and treatments, and revising the health insurance system to better cover treatment costs.

"We know there are many hepatitis C sufferers out there," he said. "We need to consider effective ways to deal with the situation."



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