top of page

5 Asian American and Pacific Islander Icons With Kidney Disease

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we're showcasing the journeys of five people with kidney disease who made history. These stories remind us never to give up hope. They also highlight the importance of raising awareness about kidney disease within the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Before diving into these inspirational stories, take a moment to understand your risk of developing kidney disease.

The statistics

  • One in three American adults is at risk of kidney disease.

  • If you are of Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islander heritage, you may have a higher chance of developing kidney disease.

  • This is not due to race or ethnicity. Rather, it's a mixture of medical, environmental, and social factors called social determinants of health or non-medical factors that make living a healthy life more difficult. 

  • Examples include not having insurance, discrimination, and lack of access to affordable, healthy groceries. 

  • The good news? There are many steps you can take to keep your kidneys healthy.  Start with this one-minute quiz to determine your risk of developing kidney disease. Bring your results to your healthcare provider to discuss the next steps. 

  • Now, on to the journeys of Sunisa "Suni" Lee, Margaret Cho, Ernie Reyes Jr., Uikelotu Christopher "Chris" Kemoeatu, and Ruth Asawa.

Sunisa "Suni" Lee took home the all-around gold medal for gymnastics during the 2020 Olympics when she was seventeen. Afterward, she smashed records at college.

Everything changed in early 2023. Lee's body started swelling up, and doctors diagnosed her with an undisclosed kidney disease. She stopped gymnastics to focus on her health.

While Lee kept much of her health journey private, she let the world know she was on the path to recovery as of April 2024. She hopes to make a comeback during the 2024 Paris Olympics.

"I remember waking up and my face, my fingers, and whole body was swollen. I tried to go to practice and couldn't lift myself up onto the bar. It's hard to wrap my head around but I'm doing a lot better. I'm so grateful for the way things have turned out," Lee told Reuters. "Being in the gym consistently, I realized that I am so much better now with my gymnastics–even better than I was at the last Olympics. That has motivated me."

Living with kidney disease can be scary and overwhelming. Talking to someone who understands may help. Learn more about NKF Peers, our peer mentorship program. 

Margaret Cho is a groundbreaking comedian, actor, and advocate. She is best known for comedy routines that address social and political problems. Cho's career was successful, but her mental health suffered because of past trauma and poor treatment from producers.

When executives for her groundbreaking TV show All-American Girl criticized her weight, Cho took extreme measures. Through starvation and diet pills, Cho lost a significant amount. As a result, her kidney function drastically declined. She experienced acute kidney failure, requiring a hospital stay.

While her kidney health rebounded, Cho struggled with addiction until she joined a rehabilitation center in 2016. The center discharged Cho a year and a half later.

"I have a lot of regret because I did not appreciate how beautiful I was. I just thought I was fat and ugly and I was so angry about the way I looked. Through diet and exercise and sheer terror, I lost 30 pounds in two weeks. I got sick, big sick. My kidneys collapsed," Cho told The Guardian. "I am just so glad to have survived and so amazed to have been alive for as long as I have been."Today, Cho is thriving. She continues to use her platform to advocate for racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and body positivity.

Actor, martial artist, and stunt performer Ernie Reyes Jr. started his career as a child. He first starred in Surf Ninjas and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. After that, he moved on to supporting roles and stunt work in different shows and movies. In 2015, Reyes was diagnosed with kidney failure as a result of undiagnosed high blood pressure. Forced to stop acting, Reyes focused on his health and getting a kidney transplant. 

In 2021, Reyes finally received that life-changing transplant. 

"Being on dialysis for six and a half years was the most challenging thing I've ever had to do but it gave me time to meditate on the reality of mortality and changed my perspective on what is truly important," Reyes said in a 2021 press release. "I am grateful to be alive and for the way it all happened, and for everyone who has been with me on this journey." 

 Former Pittsburgh Steelers player Uikelotu Christopher 'Chris' Kemoeatu was picked up during the 2005 NHL draft. This incredible achievement placed him on a rival team to his eldest brother, Ma'ake Tu'amelie Kemoeatu, who joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2002.  

Kemoeatu played guard until 2008, when he stepped into the Steelers' offensive line, taking over for Alan Faneca, who joined the New York Jets. Following the Steelers' Super Bowl XLIII victory, Kemoeatu earned a five-year contract extension. He was a starter in the 2011 Super Bowl but retired in 2012 due to declining kidney function. Focused on his health, Kemoeatu was able to stay off dialysis. 

At the same time, Ma'ake Tu'amelie Kemoeatu began the living kidney donor evaluation. Deemed a match, the former Baltimore Ravens player gave a kidney to a member of one of his team's biggest rivals."I'm the oldest of seven kids and it's my responsibility to take care of the rest," Ma'ake Tu'amelie Kemoeatu told the Baltimore Sun. "If my siblings need blood, it will be my blood. If they need a kidney, it will be my kidney. We both stopped our careers for this, but I'd have done it even if I was a rookie with the Ravens. I have to lead by example."

 Ruth Asawa is a renowned artist best known for her looped wire sculptures. Born in 1926, Asawa lived through The Great Depression and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. While detained, Asawa found solace in art. She also decided to pursue a teaching degree after graduating high school in 1946. 

Despite receiving a scholarship, racism prevented Asawa from completing her degree. She didn't give up. She pursued art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she honed her craft and met her husband, Albert Lanier.

By the 1960s, Asawa's sculptures gained recognition. She became more socially and politically active, using her art to advocate for change. 

Asawa switched focus in the 1980s. She opened a public high school for the arts in San Francisco. Around that time, doctors diagnosed her with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). SLE can damage the skin, joints, kidneys, and brain if not managed properly. 

"SLE may change my life. The prescription is to remove stress from my life. Eliminate unnecessary work, meetings, and big projects," Asawa wrote in her diary, as published in Everything She Touched: Life of Ruth Asawa. While Asawa maintained her health for many years, it rapidly declined in the early 2000s. After completing her final commission, the Garden of Remembrance, which honored interned Japanese Americans, Asawa retired from public life. Asawa passed away on August 6, 2013, at age 87. Her legacy lives on through her art and the people it has touched. Since Asawa knew her risk of developing kidney disease, she was able to make choices to protect her kidneys. Knowledge is power!

Join the fight

NKF believes in a future where everyone has access to the best kidney care possible–where there is KIDNEY EQUITY FOR ALL™. We need your help to make this dream a reality. 

Tell policymakers to prioritize kidney health: Sign the KIDNEY EQUITY FOR ALL™ Bill of Rights.

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page