Posted by: viaprograms | December 21, 2010

Organ transplant advocate reflects on her VIA connections

Sharing about organ donation at Kagawa Medical University, 2010 (Isa red; Anna blue)

My name is Isabel Stenzel Byrnes, and I am a half-Japanese social worker. In 1994, I spent a year in Takamatsu, Japan, teaching English at Kagawa Medical School through VIA. My VIA year was among the best of my life, because it gave me a chance to understand my roots and to reconnect with where my family had come from. I also enjoyed being adventurous, independent, and creative in my teaching, and meeting many amazing Japanese friends. My twin sister Anabel, Class of ‘94, also joined me for the year in Japan.

Fast forward, and my twin’s and my health deteriorated due to cystic fibrosis(CF). My Takamatsu friends sent us the ‘Senbazuru’ or ‘Thousand Cranes’ for healing. We were both granted double lung transplants, then wrote a memoir together called, “The Power of Two.” In 2009, the book was published in Japanese and we went on a month-long tour of Japan promoting patient advocacy and organ donation education. One of my former Takamatsu physician students, now in Okinawa, even invited us to lecture at his medical center!

Japanese society struggles with organ donation due to Shinto religion and cultural beliefs. Our tour was captured by a documentary film crew who created the film, “The Power of Two,” featuring our lives and cross-cultural perspectives on transplantation. While Japan has the lowest rates of organ donation in the industrial world, Japan has recently passed a law supporting organ donation. Thankfully, the public seems ready to hear about the benefits of transplantation from bilingual patients.

Visiting their VIA apartment 15 years after volunteering

I have also participated in the organ donation panel for the Exploring Health Care program with VIA since 2006. Two EHC students even arranged lectures for us in Kyoto and Kobe in 2009. Last March, 2010, at Stanford, we met two professors from Takamatsu at EHC. Thanks to them, in May 2010, Ana and I were invited to Kagawa Medical School to lecture on patient advocacy and organ donation. It was a nostalgic trip back to our old VIA apartment, the school cafeteria, our favorite shops, and a warm reunion of former students, 15 years later. The Kagawa students were extremely curious about transplantation and had never heard patients speak about their experiences before.

2010 reunion dinner with the doctors who studied English from Isa in 1994.

I continue to feel incredibly fortunate to have made the connections I have from VIA, which have opened more doors than I ever expected. Please join me in raising awareness of the Japanese transplant struggle by viewing “The Power of Two” film (, coming in early 2011!


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