Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, April 3, 2001

Moe Keale, at home with his wife Carol and his son
Nalani Keale, should be back in the regular swing
of things within six months, his doctors say.

A Second Chance

Entertainer Moe Keale's near-death
experience has left him with a deeper
appreciation for life and all the
little things that make it special

By Tim Ryan

WHILE Moe Keale was "dead" during those seven minutes following a near fatal heart attack March 12, the beloved Hawaiian singer saw fellow entertainer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, who died in 1997, coming out of an ethereal "7-Eleven" store.

"He told me, 'Eh, Mo, you can't come in here; this is heaven. Not your time yet," Keale remembers.

Looking quite the fallen but not yet defeated warrior -- tired, a bit confused, embarrassed even -- Keale gets teary-eyed remembering his near death experience and "all the good things" that have and will come from it, and "what I almost lost."

Keale, whose career has spanned more than three decades in music and acting, now has a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted in his ample chest. A five-hour angioplasty was performed after doctors discovered that one of the four main arteries to Keale's heart was completely blocked, and another was 50 percent closed.

The Sons of Hawaii in bygone years, from left,
Moe Keale, Eddie Kamae, Dennis Kamakahi,
Joe Marshall and David "Feet" Rogers.

Angioplasty is used to widen the opening of a blocked artery by inserting a balloon-tipped catheter.

"Quite a sight, huh," Keale said, slipping out a weak smile. "What an experience."

The respected kupuna, 61, suffered the heart attack -- technically a ventricular tachycardia (an abnormal heart rhythm that results from electrical impulses arising from the ventricles instead of the heart's natural pacemaker) -- "17 minutes" into an exercise session at a Windward gym with wife Carol. His survival without brain damage after his heart stopped for so long is "a miracle," Carol emphasizes.

"While I guess I was on the other side I also remember seeing the real blackness of the universe but plenty, plenty stars too," Keale said. "I saw God, this blinding white being who looked at me with his hand held like saying, Go away.' "

It was far more than a miracle that saved Keale, whose siblings all suffer from heart disease. Of six other brothers and sisters, five died from heart disease before age 60, he said.

Dr. Peter Lee, on the treadmill next to Keale at the gym, was the first to administer CPR on the dying man; McKinley High School coach Neil Takimori assisted in performing the life-saving method; and two off-duty HPD officers -- Randall Rivera and Colby Kashimoto -- had one of the department's 100 defibrillators in their car that they used to restart Keale's heart.

A defibrillator restores a normal heart rhythm by delivering an electrical shock to the heart when the heartbeat is dangerously fast due to ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation.

Keale remembers what happened leading up to the attack. "I was feeling a little dizzy so I stepped to the side of the treadmill, grabbed the rails; then I just fell backwards," he said.

Carol first thought her husband was joking until she saw Keale's face turn ashen, his body go into convulsions, and he foamed at the mouth.

He had no pulse when Carol began yelling, "You have to fight; you can't leave."

Keale remained in a coma for nearly two days. Carol said she was told by doctors that if her husband survived there would be severe brain damage.

"I guessed it just wasn't my time because I should be gone brother," said Keale, who admits that for much of his life he hasn't been the most health-conscious person.

When he met Carol 27 years ago, Keale weighed 375 pounds, and had a size 52 waist on a 6-foot frame. Through regular exercise the last few years -- and better nutrition, thanks to Carol -- Keale is down to 256 pounds. But he continued to smoke up until the day of his heart attack.

"Yeah, I used to sneak out so (Carol) wouldn't find out," Keale whispers.

Throughout Keale's coma, Carol remained at his side, repeating for hours that he had to wake up. When he did, and Carol told him he was in the hospital for a heart attack, Keale uttered, "Oh s---!"

Those were the sweetest words his son Nalani had heard in a long time. "I was relieved to hear him swear," said Nalani, an internationally honored hula dancer and teacher. "I knew my dad was back."

Like many who have nearly died, Keale believes his life will be forever changed emotionally, spiritually and physically.

"I'm not sure how or what I will do, but I want to do something for those people who saved my life, something that will help save other people's lives" he said. That could be a concert to raise funds to buy HPD additional defibrillators, or an all-day health/wellness fair and concert.

"The day I woke up in this hospital room I wanted the window opened so I could see what I would have missed," he said. "It was like seeing blue sky for the first time; I watched a single bird jumping back and forth on a very long branch and I remembered thinking that he was happy to be alive too."

Keale was a member of the legendary "Sons of Hawaii," noted both for his unique ukulele style and the clarity and richness of his solo performances.

He has been a multiple nominee, finalist, and winner in many award categories in the Na Hoku Hanohano awards, Hawaii's version of the Grammys.The Keales were surprised by the outpouring of affection from friends and fans. "You tend to forget that you may have affected people's lives and you would be missed," Keale said.

His prognosis is good. According to Carol, doctors believe her husband will be able to resume normal activity in about six months. Ten days after his attack, Keale walked nearly a block outside his home.

Keale says he and University of Hawaii football coach June Jones, who suffered a near-fatal car accident several weeks ago have a common bond.

"We've been given second chances after we should have been dead," said Keale. "God had more plans for us I guess."

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