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Hawaiian singer Don Ho says experimental stem cell procedure saved him
Friday, December 23, 2005

HONOLULU -- Legendary Hawaiian crooner Don Ho says he could barely walk, let alone sing, and would've been a "goner" if he didn't undergo an experimental stem cell procedure on his ailing heart earlier this month in Thailand.

Ho, known for his signature tune "Tiny Bubbles," yesterday said he has experienced a remarkable recovery and hopes to return to the stage soon. The therapy was supervised by Dr. Amit Patel, a heart surgeon from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"I'm feeling terrific, 100 percent better," Ho told The Associated Press in one of the first interviews since his Dec. 6 surgery. "I'm ready to go, but I've got to listen to the doctors."

"When they say my heart is strong enough to get excited, I'm on."

The 75-year-old Ho underwent a new treatment that hasn't been approved in the United States. It involves multiplying stem cells taken from his blood and injecting them into his heart in hopes of strengthening the organ.

"It was my last hope," said Ho, who suffers from nonischemic cardiomyopathy -- a weakened heart muscle not due to blockages in the coronary arteries.

He was among the first patients selected for the VesCell adult stem cell therapy, which was supervised by Dr. Amit Patel, a heart surgeon from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The experimental procedure was developed by TheraVitae Co., which has offices in Thailand and laboratories in Israel, where Ho's stem cells were sent to be multiplied. The surgery costs roughly $30,000.

Ho discovered the procedure on the Internet, as his heart and health continued to deteriorate.

"I knew that if I didn't take things into my own hand, I would've been a goner," he said.

Before the surgery, Ho said his heart was operating at only 25 percent and that he would get tired very easily, just walking or sitting up.

"You can't fight Mother Nature. When you reach a certain age and you don't really take care of yourself, then she's going to give you a little signal," Ho said.

His former fast-paced lifestyle may also have contributed to his condition. Ho has entertained tourists for more than four decades and even hosted the "The Don Ho Show" on ABC from 1976-77.

"I've never been known to be like Mr. Health," Ho said. "Have a drink every night, maybe I might cheat and take one extra bite when I shouldn't at the table. All that kind of stuff."

Ho, who has suffered from heart problems for about a year, had a pacemaker implanted a few months ago.

In August, he was admitted to a Honolulu hospital with shortness of breath. He was treated for an abnormal heart rhythm and released after three days. He soon returned to his Waikiki show on a reduced schedule.

Ho said his perspective on life has changed dramatically since the procedure. He now savors all the little things in life, like watching his children decorate the Christmas tree.

And he doesn't have any plans of quitting any time soon.

"A lot of people out there come every year to get their 'Tiny Bubbles' fix," he said. "So as long as they keep coming, I might as well keep doing it.

"I retired about 40 years ago. I'm just having fun."

First published on December 23, 2005 at 12:00 am