Twenty-nine-year-old Wallace, called Kainoa by those closest to him, flips through the old photo albums slowly, pointing out how young his uncles and aunties look, laughing at the faces he and his older brother Keahi had made at the camera, and reflecting on a happy childhood surrounded by a loving family. As the pages turn, the photos move from neighborhood basketball games and cookouts to a set of Polaroids his mom Glenell had labeled “Hospital room #431.” Now an adult, Kainoa explains that the photos were taken after a 9.5-hour brain surgery, a surgery that doctors had given only a 50 percent chance of success. If he did survive, they cautioned, he may never walk again.
Glenell reflects on that time in their lives—on coming to terms with the fact that her 6-year-old might never get the chance to grow up. “I cried a lot. My stomach was always upset. It’s hard to talk about,” she says as she tears up, thinking back on how she and her husband Cedric would torture themselves with wondering if Kainoa’s cancer had somehow been their fault, despite the doctors’—and Kainoa’s—assurances otherwise. “I thought he would lean on us for strength, but we leaned a lot on him,” she says.
Kainoa’s medical journey had started innocently enough: with a game. He and his cousins were playing a squeezing game, seeing who could squeeze the other’s fingers harder. Though he tried to squeeze with all his might, Kainoa didn’t have much strength, and his uncle Mike suggested to Glenell and Cedric that perhaps he should go the doctor. When tests revealed a golf ball-sized mass in his brain, other symptoms began to make sense—like why his left side had always been weaker than his right, or why he was often clumsy and tripped a lot. At first, his medical team monitored the tumor with regular MRIs, but when it began to grow, they knew surgery was his only option.
When Kainoa beat the odds and did pull through his surgery, there was still a long, uncertain journey ahead, filled with radiation, physical therapy, and experimental procedures. Kainoa was actually the first child in Hawaii to undergo a non-invasive brain surgery called XKnife to treat what his first surgery and radiation had left behind.
During this process, Glenell had written a letter about their journey so far. “We are blessed and satisfied with having our son with us here today,” she writes. “But what the future will hold we don’t know.”
At the time, Glenell could have only hoped for what Kainoa’s future ultimately did hold. Today, he is a 29-year-old husband, father, and successful car salesman. He is married to fellow brain cancer survivor and loving wife Kuulei, and the couple has two beautiful children: Wahieloa, age 5, and Kuapahi, age 2.
Kuapahi, who looks like just like his dad, plays quietly as Kainoa tells the story of how he got here—how he overcame every obstacle life had thrown at him to become the man he is today. He describes how his own father had carried him inside the house after the surgery when he couldn’t walk…how he looked at the wheelchair the hospital had recommended he use and instead took a deep breath, said a prayer, and tried to walk. He took two steps before falling, but Kainoa got up again and kept trying. Pretty soon, he was back to playing basketball and having fun with his cousins.
But he never regained full mobility on his left side. “He would drop everything, spill everything,” Glenell describes. “Still do,” Kainoa interrupts with a smile. But he recalls his father encouraging him from the very beginning. “When I first got out of the hospital, my dad knew the challenges I would have. He said, ‘You’re not going to be like everybody else. You’re going to have to find a way to do everything differently.’ So, I taught myself and that always stayed with me.”
In addition to his own determination to recover and adapt, Kainoa credits the support of his family and community with where he is today, including Make-A-Wish Hawaii, which granted his wish to go to Walt Disney World in 1998.
At the time, no one in his family knew what Make-A-Wish was. Glenell remembers feeling confused and almost threatened—was something this seriously wrong with her son? But when she learned what Make-A-Wish did, she says that the family couldn’t pack their bags for Disney quickly enough. They enjoyed a break from medical appointments at Give Kids The World Village and still smile over the free arcade games, endless ice cream, and swimming pool. They rode all the rides at Walt Disney World and were even joined by their cousins, who had recently moved to Florida.
“It brought us all closer and made us realize that wishes do come true,” Glenell describes. “Make-A-Wish made it happen.”
For Kainoa, the wish gave much-needed time to simply be a kid, and a sense of confidence to persevere through the rest of his journey. “Make-A-Wish gave me more self-esteem transitioning back into the world and being different,” he explains. “I always felt like I had a connection with Make-A-Wish…to this day, which is why I wanted to give back.”
Make-A-Wish Hawaii’s 1997 letter to the Choy family explaining that Kainoa was eligible for a wish made the following statement, which proved to be true: “At Make-A-Wish, we like to say that when the doctors provide the medicine and Make-A-Wish provides the magic, miracles can happen.”
And today, the letter has a proud spot as the first page in the next album after Kainoa’s brain surgery: his wish…outside of hospital room #431, and instead at Give Kids The World suite #154.