Lives lost to COVID-19: Ia Saipaia of Honolulu – Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Jean Miyashiro-Saipaia lost her husband and basketball great, Ia Saipaia, to COVID-19 in August 2021. She is pictured holding a portrait of her husband at Kamilo Iki Neighborhood Park in Hawaii Kai on Friday.
Ia Saipaia with his daughter, Angie.
A phone call from the hospital last year would change Jean Miyashiro-Saipaia’s life forever. Read more
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A phone call from the hospital last year would change Jean Miyashiro-Saipaia’s life forever.
She knew that her husband, Ia Saipaia, had contracted COVID-19 in the summer of 2021 but had expected him to fully recover. At the time, Miyashiro-­Saipaia was in California helping her daughter get settled in for her senior year at college, which was resuming in-person classes after being in remote mode due to the pandemic.
“We’ve known people who get COVID but, of course, recover,” she said. “And we certainly know more about COVID now than we did last year in August. He was OK when we left. We would call him every day.”
But on the third day of their trip, her husband sounded so weak and unwell on the phone that Miyashiro-Saipaia called for an ambulance from out-of-state and he was admitted to Straub Medical Center. A few days later, the hospital called and told the family, including her older son, Davis, and daughter, Angie, they should return home immediately.
They did but were unable to visit him in his hospital room due to COVID-19 protocols, which was the most difficult part of their experience. Saipaia became very ill, eventually ending up on a ventilator. Then he died a few days later on Aug. 31, 2021. He was 63.
“We never saw him again,” Miyashiro-Saipaia said. “That was the hardest thing — the goodbye that never happened.”
There were video-­conferencing calls and updates from hospital staff and nurses at Straub, which were not the same as being there in person, she said. But Miyashiro-Saipaia is grateful to her husband’s medical team, saying they tried the best they could and were in contact daily.
She learned that in Saipaia’s last moments, the nurse held his hand and that he did not die alone.
The family was unable to hold memorial services due to logistics until July, at Thurston Memorial Chapel on the Punahou School campus.
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Saipaia was fully vaccinated, as was the whole family.
“I feel like we know more than we did then, and I’m so thankful for that,” said Miyashiro-Saipaia. “Sometimes it makes me really so sad that he got it at that time … but I do understand that the doctors did everything that they could that they knew at the time.”
Her daughter’s graduation last week from San Diego State University was full of joy and sadness, as that’s where Saipaia played basketball and he would have been so proud to have been there. One of 11 children, he was the first in his family to graduate from college.
Saipaia was born Feb. 13, 1958, in America Samoa to Sio and Talo Saipaia, and raised in Honolulu. He graduated from Punahou School in 1976 and was a basketball standout, scoring 38 points in the boys’ basketball state tournament final in 1975. It’s a record that still stands.
Saipaia later played at San Diego State University, Santa Rosa Junior College in California and University of Hawaii at Hilo. He was inducted into the Punahou and UH-Hilo Halls of Fame.
Miyashiro-Saipaia described her husband as a “gentle giant” who stood 6-feet, 3-inches tall. Despite his athletic accomplishments, he was humble and deeply loved his family. Saipaia worked hard in the transportation sector and was a loving presence that influenced their lives and those he met.
“Everything that had to do with his kids, he was there,” said Miyashiro­-Saipaia. “He was a great dad. He always showed up.”
Son Davis Miyashiro-­Saipaia told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser he was grateful for the widespread community support for his dad.
“He really loved and cared about his family, his friends, everyone in his life,” said Davis, who played football for and graduated from the University of Oregon. “He worked a lot. Me and my sister (Angie) always knew that. All of our games, he always tried to be there.”
One thing his dad would always say, he said, was “Find a way. Figure it out.”
His death from COVID-19 happened so quickly and unexpectedly that it seemed surreal, said his wife. Jean Miyashiro-­Saipaia still struggles with the loss, especially not being with him in his final moments, but is grateful they had a good life together and for the support from friends and family.
The lesson is that “you have to love like it’s the last day,” she said, and make sure the people that you love know that you love them.
“We knew him so well that we try to honor his legacy the best we can,” she said. “I tell the kids Dad worked super hard to give us our life, so we have to try to honor that, and continue — otherwise, it would have been for nothing.”
In addition to his wife Jean, son Davis and daughter Angie, Saipaia is survived by son Blane Saipaia; sisters Mele Wilson, Anna Gill, Faasalafa Forney, Faia Aiga, Paepae Lualemana, Toaiva Rowe and Maia Tuisamata; brothers Sio Saipaia Jr. and Soli Namu; and numerous nieces, nephews and grandchildren.
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