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‘We’re all praying for a miracle’: Five childhood friends are circle of support for Spokane man, 53, battling brain tumors

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 12, 2020

By sixth grade in Spokane, Hans Kaio stood out for his height, taller than some teachers. Over the years, he has stood out more so for his kindness, a Santa-like laugh and being the first to help anyone, lifelong friends say.

Including Kaio, five boys bonded over sports at Indian Trail Elementary School. They “adopted” a sixth member by North Central High School years. They’ve remained tight-knit since – despite careers, kids and distances.

Now, his Class of 1986 friends are the backbone of support for Kaio and his wife, Christine – along with a GoFundMe – after doctors recently found that Kaio has a series of large brain tumors.

Since Oct. 26, he’s had two surgeries at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. A 12-hour Nov. 2 surgery removed a big portion that blocked the brain stem to relieve pressure. Doctors predict at least a third surgery and months of extensive care.

“It’s something he’s been dealing with for about five years, meaning they didn’t know what it was,” said Christine Kaio, describing 2015 and 2018 surgeries when lab results couldn’t identify what he had.

“He was having recurrent ear infections, and they thought it was something simple they could fix. When they got in there, they didn’t know what it was. The lab didn’t know what it was.”

Hans Kaio, 53, works as a hearing instrument specialist at Columbia Hearing Centers. Christine Kaio is a dental hygienist who went to NC, and the couple reconnected at their 20-year reunion. In recent weeks, she said the vast support from many NC alums is humbling.

It’s ranged from them helping her find a place to stay in Seattle and delivered meals to rides from Don Jones, now in Seattle who is the sixth adopted friend. He picked her up from a hotel and stood in line with her for visitor hours, though only she could go in under COVID-19 restrictions.

The childhood friends’ circle with Kaio also includes Rick Jones (no relation) in Spokane; John Cain, in Pennsylvania; Wade Ingebritsen in Spokane; and Jim Scott in Maryland. They’d heard about Kaio’s ear issues in recent years.

In March, Kaio woke up and his pillow had “a bunch of blood on it,” his wife said. A biopsy was done.

“The lab in Spokane sent it to a lab in California, and that lab called the ENT we’d been working with and said it was a neuroendocrine tumor and that we needed to get it out of there immediately.”

Surgery was scheduled in Spokane as April’s COVID-19 precautions were in place. “They opened him up; I guess it was very large and wrapped around his facial nerve,” and the surgery couldn’t remove it all, she said.

The couple went on with life and had just bought a home in September. Then, “Hans in the past couple of weeks was not doing well,” she said on Nov. 2. Both she and Hans’ daughter urged him to go to the emergency room, which he did by Oct. 26. Taken by ambulance to Felts Field, the couple ended up on Life Flight to Seattle.

In Seattle, more lab work confirmed a neuroendocrine tumor. The third surgery would remove more, and after that, specialists then will decide on possible radiation. Kaio will have some lingering issues after the surgeries such as loss of hearing in one ear, his wife said.

Rick Jones, a fitness and health teacher at Westview Elementary, and his wife, Melissa, have spread word about the GoFundMe to ease the couple’s medical costs. The six members have texted in recent group chats.

“He is probably one of the most genuine people that you would ever meet,” Rick Jones said. They all knew him in childhood as “Hansi,” as his parents called him. Kaio’s mother was German.

“Hans was 6 feet tall back in sixth grade, and we joked he had a mustache then. He was gifted as a basketball player. We just had a lot of fun with him. We called him ‘Gentle Giant’ or ‘Big Kahuna’ because his dad had Hawaiian descent.”

Kaio is usually the first to help one of them, including multiple household moves, as adults. Jones said about six years ago, he called Kaio for his help coaching his son’s baseball team. Their dads had coached them. “Hans stepped right in. He didn’t have a kid on the team, but that’s the kind of person he is.”

Wade Ingebritsen has fond memories going back to first grade when he first met Kaio. “A lot of times, those big kids like to throw their weight around,” he said. “Hans wasn’t that guy. He was the nicest guy, and you only had to meet him once, and you’ll never forget him.”

“We’re all praying for a miracle; he’s got a long road ahead of him. We’d be willing to do anything for him because he’s just one of those guys; he never really asks for anything for himself, but he’s more than willing to help any one of us out.”

Their parents knew each other well from that Indian Trail neighborhood, which helped in staying connected, said John Cain, who works for Costco on the East Coast. When work requires occasional Issaquah trips, he usually works in a Spokane visit, where his mother still lives.

They all played basketball together, Cain said. “I don’t know of anyone who knows Hansi who doesn’t like Hansi. He’s always got a smile, an extremely contagious laugh, and he’s just a genuine, kind person.”

Christine Kaio said his doctors can’t believe how well he’s functioned in recent months. He is otherwise healthy, eating a mostly vegetarian diet and doesn’t take any medications, she said. He’s stayed upbeat.

He’s even watched his beloved Seahawks play, befriended hospital staff and told his family that he was craving Ivar’s fish and chips with clam chowder. Her sons left Christine in the hospital line and bought the meal in time to give it to her still warm just before visiting time.

“He just loves everyone,” his wife said.

She said her son, Pierson Villarrubia, sums him up well in a post: “Hansi is the type who always speaks to anyone with the same level of curiosity and intention, brings insects – even mosquitos – outside in a glass if they find their way into the house and fills the biggest room with a Santa Claus-esque laugh.

“It has been overwhelming watching his family, childhood friends and everyday people who have crossed paths with Hans rally behind him and my mom. Weirdly, at the same time, it almost feels expected when you come across a person as special as him.”

Treva Lind can be reached at (509) 459-5439 or at treval@spokesman.com.

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