By Jason S. Yadao
(Stan Sakai, left, grandson Leo, wife Sharon, son Matthew and daughter Hannah gathered for a snapshot last year. The photo was taken in December, shortly before Leo died in his sleep, yet another tragedy to befall the family. Photo courtesy Stan Sakai.)
It pains me to have to write this, but perhaps it was sadly inevitable as well, given her declining health in recent weeks: Sharon Sakai, the wife of Usagi Yojimbo artist and isle ex-pat Stan Sakai, died Tuesday morning surrounded by family at home, according to a Facebook update from Stan Sakai. She was 61.
Sharon's health, as you might remember, and the costs of treating her rare condition were the primary driving force behind a series of charity eBay auctions hosted by the Comic Art Professional Society and a Dark Horse-published book featuring a selection of the auctioned artwork, The Sakai Project: Artists Celebrate 30 Years of Usagi Yojimbo. As Wilma and I wrote in a Sakai Project profile (available to Star-Advertiser subscribers) in July:
BEHIND THE SCENES, Sharon Sakai was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2004. The type 3 atypical meningioma tumor was benign but so rare, the Sakais were told, that among the 9 million patients covered by their insurance carrier, Kaiser Permanente, there were only three cases similar to hers.
Radiation seemed to keep the tumor in check until 2011, when it returned aggressively, paralyzing her left side, including her throat and vocal cords. The side effects of treatment have included diabetes, high blood pressure, loss of hearing and sight, and an inability to eat solid food.
Sakai is now convalescing at home in Pasadena, Calif., confined to bed and breathing through a tracheostomy tube. She's had to be rushed to the emergency room several times and was down to 77 pounds at one point. But through it all, "she still maintains a great positive attitude and is such an inspiration to everyone who knows her," Stan Sakai said via email.
This was one of those stories where you really were rooting for a happy ending, hoping that Sharon would fully recover. Wilma and I read the same thing over and over again, both in the responses to our interview and just in general on social media: Stan is a really nice guy, one of the most highly regarded people working in the comics industry today, and Stan and Sharon were a really sweet couple. Heck, just look at this excerpt from a profile Gary Chun wrote in the Star-Bulletin in 2001:
The girl that Sakai knew throughout his school years -- from Waikiki Elementary, through Kaimuki Intermediate and Kaimuki High School -- is now his wife of 24 years, Sharon. They celebrated the anniversary of their 1977 wedding just this past Wednesday. They are the proud parents of Hannah and Matthew. "Sharon has always been very supportive of me," Sakai said.
They would end up married for 37 years.
As much as we wanted a happy ending for such a charmed and charming couple, though, it simply was not meant to be. Right around the time our article was published on July 27, Sharon was admitted to the ER with a suspected respiratory infection. While she was eventually discharged, treatments took their toll, and she often slept for more than 22 hours a day, waking up for only a few minutes here and there. In an update on Sept. 7, Stan reported that she was effectively blind and deaf and was breathing through a tracheostomy tube, and the family discontinued chemotherapy because getting her to the hospital was too taxing on her and the benefits of treatment were dubious at best. The updates were similar through the rest of September and October -- resting comfortably, sleeping a lot, condition somewhat stable.
On Nov. 13, Stan posted the following:
I have not updated Sharon's condition in awhile. It is difficult to always tell you she is the same, only a little worse. She sleeps almost 23 hours a day now, and is awake for 5-10 minutes at a time. She is sometimes alert, but more often is unaware of her surroundings. Sometimes she will squeeze my hand, though. She is deaf and blind now. We do not know how her other senses are doing, but we try to stimulate them by touching her or massaging her with pikake (jasmine)-scented lotion. She is in some pain from the pressure of the brain tumor. We give her Tylenol or morphine, depending upon how she looks. She always has ice packs under her head and on her forehead to help the pain and, perhaps, it helps with the swelling.
She pulled the oxygen tube from her trach early Wednesday morning. I discovered it when I went down at 5 AM. I had last checked on her at 2:30, so it was sometime during the 2.5 hours. Her oxygen saturation level was at 79%. I think Joan Rivers had gone into her coma because of low oxygenation, so it is a real problem. Anyway, I disconnected her from the oxygenator and onto an O2 tank. The oxygenator has a maximum output of 5 liters/hour whereas the tank is capable of a higher concentration of 8 liters/hour. She was soon back up to 99%. Brain cells start to die from lack of oxygen at 92%, or so I was told. Her blood pressure and heart rate remained really high. I gave her meds and continued to monitor her, and her numbers were back down to reasonable levels in about 90 minutes. She pretty much slept through all of yesterday. Each day brings new challenges but, after more than a year of caring for Sharon at home, we have learned to cope with them calmly and quite quickly. We are so glad she is home and not in the hospital or outside hospice care.
Condolence messages have been filling Stan's Facebook page and social media ever since the news broke. Just run a search on Twitter to see who's chimed in there. Wilma and I were chatting about it Tuesday afternoon, and she offered this observation:
Other people have said some really nice things. I was really touched by several people who admired Stan for all his care and devotion, and it was obvious she was very much loved and respected.
I think the best way to describe how I was feeling when I heard the news was, I was alternately feeling very sad and very touched as I read all the comments that were coming in. Like many others, I never met Sharon myself, but it was very touching to see all the outpouring of support.
For his part, Stan thanked everyone for their love and support and said he would be stepping away from Facebook for a bit "to spend time with family and figure out our next steps."
Wilma and I, too, send our condolences to the Sakai family, along with much love and hugs for the days and weeks to come.