Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Didi Ah Yo's spending her recovery time baking. With her
are two of her nephews, Chase, left, and Eric Lum.

Didi's back

The queen of travel books her
return to health after undergoing
leukemia treatment

By Nadine Kam

For a while it seemed Didi Ah Yo had packed up and gone away. Missing from the usual glut of television commercials were her pitches for Creative Holidays, with the perky catchphrase, "I'm Didi Ah Yo and away we go!"

Ah Yo had indeed left, but not on any kind of pleasure trip. Her destination was The City of Hope National Medical Center and Beckman Research Institute in Duarte, Calif., where she underwent a bone marrow transplant for leukemia last November, returning home in July where she is recuperating while in remission.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and in spite of doctor and friends' recommendations to rest, Ah Yo returned to face the camera, not to promote travel packages, but to quietly reassure the public that it's OK to travel. After all, it has to be OK if Didi would go. And, Ah Yo, having stared down death, is not one to put life on hold.

She's helping to promote the City of Hope's Workout for Hope Saturday, a fund-raiser for cancer and AIDS research. She hopes that sharing her story will help reassure others that they can overcome cancer.

Ah Yo flashes a shaka sign during a side trip to Yosemite Park.

She answers her phone with her signature sing-song lilt. Though subdued, her bubbly, accommodating nature shines through with an invitation to come by anytime.

I arrive Saturday to find a household -- every day's family day with this close-knit clan -- full of nephews, sister Lisa Leong, brother-in-law Joe Leong, brother Preston Lum, mom and dad Florence and Kenneth Lum, and hubby Paul Ah Yo. Paul has to head to the travel office; everyone else is getting ready for a football game. In the confusion, the phone rings and Didi is on the line chirping, "Of course!"

Then, "Ohhh, do you know where's my book? I thought you were asking 'do you look good?' So I said, 'of course!' "

Ah Yo does look good, with a smile that radiates joy and a sense of humor, though steroids meant to combat infection cause her cheeks and feet to swell, the hair in the photo is not her own -- her real hair still growing back -- and her post-radiation "tan" is fading.

"I could have been Pamela Anderson," she says with glee. "All my friends said I looked so good, like I was on vacation. I said, 'Hellooo, this is burnt!' "

The queen of hospitality had thoughtfully put an orange cone on the street with my name on it so I wouldn't get lost, and even baked almond cookies and banana bread, saying "I tasted all the junk ones, so these are the good ones." (I'm certain they were all fine.)

Ah Yo and husband Paul also pause for what she calls
a "Kodak moment" at the Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach.

"I haven't baked in years," she says. "I like to bake now." Having little to do in the hospital save for watching The Food Network may have had a little to do with this transformation. Ah Yo received the book about 10 years ago from a relative, Shirley Wat, but as the vice-president for the family-run business, Ah Yo never stopped moving long enough to try the recipes.

"I had tunnel vision, always traveling, I didn't pay attention to my body. I'm the type who doesn't even take aspirin." Then last September she began experiencing headaches, and with her sight beginning to blur, she went in for a checkup that showed a low white blood cell count. She was referred to a hemotologist who diagnosed pre-leukemia, introducing the likelihood of requiring a bone marrow transplant.

Luckier than many, Ah Yo's sister Lisa was a 97 percent donor match and Ah Yo was admitted to the City of Hope facility, where the bone marrow transplant section is limited to 30 beds. Even as she was admitted, she said she was thinking, "I can't do this, I have to be in South America."

After nearly two weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, the transplant was performed intravenously through a machine that would collect Lisa's blood, transferring only the stem cells needed to Didi's veins, then replacing what wasn't needed back to Lisa's body. The procedure was performed six hours a day over four days.

Didi Ah Yo's first meal out of the hospital was saimin,
shared with her mom and dad, Florence and Kenneth Lum.

But the procedure was only the start of the real difficulties.

"Everything they warned me about, I got," Ah Yo said. While other patients entered the facility, were treated and sent home to recover, Ah Yo remained. "Pretty soon I was the oldest one there and the doctors said, 'Don't forget you're in an older age bracket,' so what I told my sister was 'I'm here because my donor was so old; you're holding me up here!'

"Basically, her immune system was inside me and there was adversity because her immune system was like, 'Who am I? Where am I?' "

Bacterial infections attacked her digestive system and rendered her unable to open her mouth; she suffered from shingles and stomach flu. Fed and medicated through seven IVs, she couldn't eat solid food for 3-1/2 months, and when she did, "everything tasted awful, like metal."

Worst of all, she had to swallow pills. "It took me two or three hours to take four or five pills. I'd dilly dally, play with them, push them around, but then there would be all these people praying for me to get better, so I thought I'd better just take them."

With her blood monitered, dietitians could prescribe foods depending on what minerals and vitamins she needed. She remembers eating lots of bananas and avocados and believes she was able to stay optimistic out of naiveté. "I never made a will; I just thought I'll be out in a couple of months and on my way home. Of course I did see people, people from Hawaii, who did not make it and it's very sad."

Workout for Hope

Three-hour marathon aerobics workout to raise funds for City of Hope cancer and AIDS research

Where: Honolulu Club, 932 Ward Ave.
When: 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, with registration at 9 a.m.
Admission: Must collect $20 in pledges; sponsor forms are available at the Honolulu Club and fitness facilities; raise $50 and receive a Workout for Hope T-shirt
Call: Honolulu Club at 543-3900, or City of Hope at 800-934-9196

But she has photographs to remember them, as well as the photographs of her own progress, which at first seemed an invasion of privacy to Paul.

"All these people were coming in and taking pictures, and I was thinking, 'Oh man, why do you have to do that for?' " he said. "The image of Didi is very vivacious, very open, but here she could hardly open her eyes. But now when I see the pictures I say 'God, thank you.' "

Through it all, Didi's biggest disappointment, she jokes, was that the family business did fine without her and Paul. "I said 'How could you do this without me?' "

The business had its roots in the '70s when Didi Ah Yo was Didi Lum. Working for a charter travel company, she and some friends and relatives -- "we were the original puka shell tour guides" -- would assemble travelers in a ballroom to try to sell various land tour packages.

"That's when I found out I was a ham," she said. "I liked to joke and clown around. I never wanted to be on a stage or anything, I just liked people."

Along the way, she met Paul Ah Yo, who was a tour bus driver. The couple has a daughter and grandson who live in Seattle.

The Ah Yos finally returned to Hawaii in July, but Paul waited a month to go back to work. "The bottom line is our life has changed. We realized how precious life is, and what life we have we should enjoy and never put off doing something you want to do."

That includes making time for living. After being released from the hospital in February, they stayed at friends Arnold and Tina Kum's home in Pasadena. Although the City of Hope had quarters for visiting guests, there wasn't enough room for Hawaiian style visitations of "20 people all at once," Paul said.

"We tried to remain low-key and not tell too many people about Didi's condition, but clients would ask about her and send emails and letters of support," he said. "For anyone going through recovery, support of friends and family just provides more strength. I can't thank them enough."

While in California, the couple also made stops at Yosemite National Park and the Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach for a couple of Kodak moments en route to visit an aunt in Cambria.

Ah Yo is anxious to get back to work, but probably will rest through January. Although she can't spend much time in the sun, she does get a little exercise by doing grocery shopping and walking through the mall, and she has made herself available to talk to a few others who are going through what she endured.

"I just show my diary, like, oh look, I had 'yummy lasagna' one day. The main thing is to have a good attitude because that only adds to your ability to heal."

Information about the City of Hope Department of
Hematology and Bone Marrow Transplantation can
be found at

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