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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A special day for a special teen

Video: Special Aiea grad doesn’t let illness derail him

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Andrew Sato proudly wears his graduation gown in his bedroom in 'Aiea. Because of his leukemia, he is receiving his diploma today at a graduation ceremony at 'Aiea High School.

Photos by JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Andrew Sato's family welcomes donations for the 17-year-old who has terminal cancer. Monetary or in-kind donations are being accepted, including for Sato's funeral expenses.

To help, contact Heart Gallery Hawai'i at 295-1929.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Andrew Sato is taken care of by Bernie Tebia from St Francis Hospice. He will receive an honorary degree today at 'Aiea High.

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Andrew Sato has so many dreams.

He wants to become a chef. He wants to drive a fancy sports car. He imagines buying a house someday.

But today, Sato will get something he never dreamed possible: The 17-year-old whose terminal cancer forced him to miss much of his senior year will graduate from 'Aiea High.

At a ceremony this morning with all the pomp and circumstance of the traditional spring graduation, Sato will walk across a stage in front of his senior class. The lieutenant governor will say a few words. So will Sato.

And his family will shower him with lei.

Sato insists the honor is one he doesn't deserve.

He also says he doesn't like the attention.

But he is grateful and moved, all the same.

"It's just very overwhelming," said Sato, smiling weakly over a light lunch in his kitchen, his green 'Aiea High cap and gown hanging in his room, next to a remote-control truck.

Sato eats half a sandwich, and leaves the rest for later.

For a 17-year-old, he is small. Purple and green splotches dot his arms and legs - his leukemia makes him bruise easily.

Lynn Gamata, who got legal guardianship of Sato last year after taking him into her home as a foster child in January 2006, said the teenager has come to terms with his death and has pledged to live the rest of his life as fully as he can.

So when Sato had doubts about the graduation, she urged him to go. "I told him, 'Being who you are makes other people strong,' " Gamata said. "He's just so special to everybody."


Those who know Sato say the bright, hopeful teenager shows a spirit unseen in kids his age. It is that strength that has gotten him so far despite such adversity, and that spurred Heart Gallery Hawai'i, which helps foster kids, to help him graduate.

David Louis, executive director of the nonprofit, said Sato has suffered more than most other kids and has come through it all with an upbeat attitude and a caring heart.

Louis helped organize the graduation as a way to help Sato realize he has accomplished so much in his short life.

The ceremony is also meant as a time for Sato's classmates to recognize his struggles and his courage. "It just blows my mind the strength this kid has," Louis said.

Louis hopes Sato's story will spur people to help Gamata - who has five of her own children and two other foster children. He said she needs help with funeral expenses, after burying her mother last year, and other costs.

Gamata said Sato's medical bills are covered.

But she buys his medications and tries to treat him every once in a while with a gift. Like many teenagers, his two loves are computers and video games. His third is cooking, but he hasn't been able to do as much since getting very sick.

It is rare for the state Department of Education to confer honorary degrees, officials said. Mike Tokioka, the principal of 'Aiea High, said he's never heard of it being done at his school.

Tokioka said he jumped at the chance to recognize Sato, especially before it's too late. "It touches everybody," he said.


Sato found out he had untreatable leukemia in September 2007. But he is no stranger to the disease. At age 8, shortly after being abandoned by his mother in a park, Sato was diagnosed with leukemia for the first time and started treatment.

The disease went into remission for several years.

But it came back in April 2006.

Three months later, the cancer was gone again.

But the third time it returned, late last year, it was stronger than ever.

After a short stint in the hospital, in which he deteriorated quickly, Sato was allowed to go home after doctors determined there was nothing they could do to treat the cancer.

When he got home, just before Christmas, Sato was in a wheelchair and weak. He needed help with almost everything.

But he jumped back, to everyone's surprise.

Now, he is walking again and eating.

His biggest complaints are body aches and tiredness.

He has also lost vision in one eye.

Gamata says she will never give up hope on Sato.

"He's so strong and so capable of doing so much stuff," Gamata said, holding back tears as she sat with Sato yesterday.

But Gamata has been told Sato could go downhill at any moment. And he has requested that he not be resuscitated if he stops breathing. His wish is to be at home when he dies.

And that is something Gamata will make sure is fulfilled.

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.