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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Nick Ma'afala leaves vast 'ohana

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

They came by the hundreds to see Nick Ma'afala in the final hours of his life.

Sati Fiatoa, a relative of the Ma'afala family, shows some of the Samoan lauhala mats that are traditionally given to families who have lost a loved one.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Every time the fourth-floor elevator doors opened at St. Francis Medical Center's Sullivan building, another load of Ma'afala's friends and his huge family seemed to spill out into the bone-marrow transplant unit.

At one point, St. Francis Medical Center's security staff politely asked Ma'afala's brother Tenari, a Honolulu police officer, if he could please ask everyone to wait downstairs.

Nick Ma'afala, a former University of Hawai'i defensive lineman, died Saturday of complications from leukemia. The 33-year-old was used to working a big room.

Ma'afala grew up one of 10 brothers and sisters — first in Nanakuli and then in the public housing project known as Mayor Wright Homes in Kalihi-Palama.

When it came time to look for a miracle, doctors only had to turn to Ma'afala's brothers and sisters.

They found brief hope in Ma'afala's older sister, Leimomi Ma'afala, 36, who became her brother's bone marrow donor in an effort to save his life.

Leimomi hung a load of wet laundry yesterday outside the modest four-bedroom apartment she shares with her mother, Lusia, in Mayor Wright's Building 8, Unit F, and remembered more carefree days.

Nick used to tease his bigger, slower sister then sprint out of harm's way, leaving Leimomi to lie in wait and plan her revenge.

"Because I cannot run, bruddah would dig out," Leimomi said. "I wait. I geev 'em. I sit on him, every t'ing. I like beat him up, so bad."

All 10 brothers and sisters nevertheless grew up close. Lusia, the matriarch of the Ma'afalas, insisted on it.

She saw her children surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence and would hit them with belts and sticks if that's what it took to keep them focused in the right direction.

"When I look at it now," brother Benson Ma'afala said in an Advertiser profile of the family in February, "if it wasn't for what she taught us, we might have been in a gang, jail or dead."

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser Advertiser library photo • April 25, 2000
Leimomi Ma'afala, left, donated stem cells and bone marrow to her brother Nick, right, in the hopes that it would help cure his leukemia. Nick Ma'afala died Saturday.
Baby brother Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala is a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tenari has twice been cited for bravery with the police department. Sister Tanya Fuamatu was inducted in January into the UH-Hilo Hall of Fame.

Nick played for UH in 1985 and 1986, but bad knees cost him any chance of a pro career. He went on to play semi-pro football and was an assistant coach at McKinley High School, where he had been a standout defensive lineman.

Almost a year ago — and just a week after his 33rd birthday — Ma'afala was diagnosed with leukemia. In April, he underwent his first round of chemotherapy.

In January, the first six brothers and sisters went in for blood tests to see if they could donate bone marrow. Leimomi matched.

"I was honored," she said. "They needed to find somebody fast. My bruddah was out of cells. Time was running out for Nick, already."

Doctors numbed the skin around Leimomi's collar bone but it did nothing to ease the pain of the needle that went through her bone and retrieved the marrow. A month later, in February, they removed more marrow from her hips.

The outlook seemed good at first. Even in the last few days, Ma'afala seemed upbeat and kept trying to sit up in his hospital bed.

He also insisted on pulling out his hospital tubes and put up a good fight, said older sister Katarina Ieru. "He was a strong guy," she said.

At 1:23 p.m. Saturday, Ma'afala died of lung failure and kidney failure.

Yesterday, friends and family brought Samoan heirlooms of woven feathers and lauhala to unit 8F.

Tenari and Nick's wife, Shannon Sandry, spent the afternoon trying to make funeral arrangements with no luck.

Shannon wants to hold the service Friday, Nick's 34th birthday. But with his birthday falling on Good Friday this year, all of the church's they checked were already booked.

So the family will probably wait a week and let relatives and friends arrive from the Mainland and Samoa.

And that's all right, too, Tenari said.

The Ma'afalas are used to having a lot of people around.

Dan Nakaso can be reached by phone at 525-8085, or by e-mail at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.