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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 5, 2003

Illness leads daughter to discover her biological parents

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Barbara Kozuma always offered to help her daughter find her birth parents, but Kim would say, "Maybe sometime later."

That time came last summer.

Barbara and Harold Kozuma adopted Kimberly from Kapi'olani Hospital 35 years ago, when she was three days old. All they knew about her birth mom was that she was a nurse in the Peace Corps stationed in Hawai'i.

But in July, finding Kim's birth parents became imperative. Kim was diagnosed with stage 2 melanoma. Her oncologist wanted to know the health history of her biological mom and dad.

Barbara immediately got on the case.

"I'm a bulldog," she said. "If I had to call George W. Bush, I would have called him and gotten through!"

She started with Kapi'olani Medical Center, emphasizing that although it would be nice to know who the birth mother was, they would respect her wish to remain anonymous. All the couple wanted was for Kim's birth mother to share her health history with Kim's oncologist.

Sharon Leng, then an attorney at Kapi'olani, began to explore old hospital records. She came up empty.

When Kim Kozuma developed melanoma, she and her adoptive parents set out to find her birth parents.

Kozuma family photo

Meanwhile, Barbara contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, and got the congresswoman to formally request information from the Peace Corps on Kim's birth mom.

"That's Barbara," said Harold. "Once she hooks onto something, she doesn't let go."

In August, the call came. The attorney had located Kim's birth father, Duane. Amazingly, he was still living at his family's Michigan homestead, the address listed on the adoption papers he had signed when Kim was born.

"Who would have thought that 35 years later, the dad would still be at the same address? That's one in a million," said Barbara. "It was almost as if somebody was pulling the strings up there, wanting Kim to find her birth folks."

The attorney said Duane wanted to contact Kim, who was now living in Georgia. To hear Barbara tell it, the connection was instant and the emotions were huge.

"He was so thrilled to find Kim," she said. "He couldn't wait to see her, and he was going to fly down, but his kids said no, we want to see her, so she drove up. And his daughters were amazed, because he never, ever told his family — not his wife, not his daughters. He carried that with him."

"He wrote me the most beautiful letter," said Barbara, "how so often he thought of her, how he felt so guilty in giving up this child. ... He had flown to Honolulu to sign the papers to release her, to give her up for adoption, and he said he never really had a peaceful day since, because he always regretted that and wondered what happened to her. ... He says his family is now complete."

Duane offered to help find Kim's birth mother. They had lost touch years ago, but he had some ideas on how to locate her. He drove up to her hometown in Michigan and found her father's obituary in the public library. From there, he learned her married name and that she lived in Washington.

"And then he called me up and said, 'I can't go any further'," Barbara said. "He said, 'My wife doesn't want me looking up old girlfriends. You take it from here.'"

Barbara got on the Internet and tracked down the number for Kim's birth mom — who is coincidentally also named Barbara. She steeled herself to make the call.

"I was so trembly. I didn't know how she'd receive this. What do I say? Will she be angry that I found her? Unfriendly?"

Barbara composed a script just in case. And then she dialed.

"Hi, this is Barb," said the woman who answered the phone.

"Barb," Barbara said. "This is another Barb, and this is the hardest phone call I've ever made in my whole life."

Then came a short silence and Barbara wondered whether the woman on the other end of the line would hang up.

"Oh, how come?" the woman said.

"I'm the lady who adopted your baby 35 years ago," Barbara said.

"Well, for heaven's sake," the woman said, "Hello!"

"Oh, my gosh," Barbara said. "That's the most beautiful hello I've ever heard!"

From that moment, Barbara and Barbara became fast friends.

Birth mom Barbara said that when she joined the Peace Corps, she didn't realize she was pregnant. She had just gotten her nursing degree and was very focused on her career. She came to Hawai'i and studied Vietnamese in preparation to be shipped overseas. At the time, the corps didn't allow pregnant women to join, so she had to drop out. After Kim was born, there was a call for nurse interpreters to go to Vietnam, so off she went.

"When I spoke to her mother, she asked, 'What does Kim do?' And I said she's a veterinarian. And she said, 'My gosh, that's what I always wanted to be!' " Barbara Kozuma said.

Now the extended family sends e-mails back and forth between the Kozumas in Hilo, Kim and her husband in Georgia, Duane and his family in Michigan, Barbara in Washington and the Kozumas' son Kenji and his family in Oregon. Barbara Kozuma included the story in her holiday newsletter, and titled it "The Puzzle Is Completed."

"People ask Harold and I how we feel," she said, "and I cannot imagine not being thrilled for your daughter. I mean, we're secure in her love. To know that she's happy, finally being able to piece her life together, knowing that she has a sister out there who looks just like her, knowing she has her father's legs and her mother's shoulders. ... And Harold and I, I'm 70, he's 73. Her birth parents are in their 50s, so when we are gone she'll still have another set of families out there caring for her, and that makes us feel so good."

As for Kim, her melanoma is in check, but she learned that her birth father's brother, mother and grandmother all had the same illness. "All I can say is that if I had to do it all over again to be where I am today," Kim said, "I would do it again in a heartbeat."

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.