Honoring the Caring Spirit of Our “Many High Ancestors”
Renelaine Pfister
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

This year, the Kuakini Medical Center celebrates its 120th anniversary. With its name meaning “multitudinous; many high ancestors” in Hawaiian, the origin of Kuakini is linked to the historic bubonic plague that crossed the Pacific Ocean from Asia and darkened the city of Honolulu. The first case was discovered in December 1899 in Chinatown, and the area was subsequently quarantined.

The Japanese Charity Hospital, circa 1900.(Photos courtesy of Kuakini Medical Center)

Because of our unusual COVID-19 times, we can fully understand the notion of quarantine, hardly an alien concept to us today. What is alien, though, is the additional devastation that occurred in 1900 caused by the Board of Health’s decision to set controlled fires to curb the sickness in Chinatown. Unfortunately, in January 1900, wind gusts fanned and spread the fire, which lasted for 17 days and burned 38 acres of land, or approximately 38 football fields. It left 7,000 people homeless, and 3,590 Japanese people displaced, in what was called the “Great Chinatown Fire.”

The Japanese Benevolent Society (Nihonjin Jizenkai) — a charitable organization established in 1887 to help gannen-mono immigrants (the first Japanese to arrive in Hawai‘i in 1868) — stepped in to provide emergency relief for the Japanese people affected by the fire. It also started plans to build a hospital, especially for former agricultural workers and other new immigrants to the islands from Japan.

On July 15, 1900, after three months of construction, a two-story wooden building called The Japanese Charity Hospital opened on Kapälama Street in Kalihi to serve qualifying, indigent Japanese residents for free. However, it also accepted private-paying patients.

Over the next 18 years, the hospital evolved and expanded in response to an increasing Japanese population in Hawai‘i as well as a growing percentage of private-paying patients. In 1902, a second three-story hospital was erected on Liliha Street. In April 1917, the hospital was renamed the Japanese Hospital, and it served mainly private-paying patients by then. On Sept. 27, 1918, a 16-building hospital opened on Kuakini Street on four acres of land, with 120 patient beds and 15 physicians on staff.

In the early years, the hospital staff practiced Japanese ways and customs; written and oral communications were in Japanese. Prior to World War II, a nursing school was opened, as well as the 50-bed Japanese Home of Hawaii, where elderly unmarried Japanese men, largely former plantation workers, who had reached retirement age and had no families, were housed and cared for. This was the precursor to today’s Kuakini Home, an adult residential care home on the Kuakini Health System campus. Most of the residents are now female.

When World War II broke out, parts of the Japanese Hospital were utilized by U.S. military forces, who paid for a lease of the buildings and brought in their own staff. In 1942, the hospital was renamed Kuakini Hospital and Home.

In 1975, the name was changed again, to Kuakini Medical Center, a 250-bed, acute-care hospital. The institution expanded into Kuakini Health System in 1984. Kuakini is the last surviving hospital established by Japanese immigrants in the U.S.

Celebrating 120 Years

To celebrate its 120th anniversary this year, Kuakini had planned to welcome the public to the KHS campus on July 18 with a community celebration: a free event with a mini health fair, health screenings, hands-on demonstrations, activities for children and light refreshments. For its previous milestone, such as the 100th, 110th and 115th anniversaries, more than a thousand people from the community attended similar events.

Then of course, the coronavirus pandemic entered and altered all of our lives, locally and across the globe, limiting human gatherings and spawning a new term: social distancing.

Despite the challenges, however, Kuakini has made sure to celebrate its milestone anniversary.

Healthcare workers at the current Kuakini Medical Center.

Donda Spiker, manager of the Marketing and Public Relations Department, said, “This year, we decided to have a ‘120th Kuakini Anniversary Grab-and-Go Celebration’ for employees in our spacious auditorium on the Kuakini campus. If we couldn’t celebrate with the community, we knew we wanted to at least celebrate with the employees and those on our campus. Seven tables were lined up from one door to another; staff entered from one door and made their way to the exit door. As employees walked past each table, they picked up deli sandwiches, cake, chips, drinks, popcorn, a goody bag, protein bar and a face mask. Practically everything was donated by various local and mainland companies and the medical staff of Kuakini Medical Center.

“For the night-shift employees, we packed the items in boxes for them and delivered the box[es] to the various units which are open between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.”

Due to the COVID-19 lockdown orders mandated by the state of Hawai‘i and city of Honolulu, Kuakini Medical Center’s 120th anniversary celebration canceled its public event. Instead, grab-and-go goodies bags donated by various businesses were handed out to employees, patients and residents of the Kuakini Health System.

Spiker added, “To expand our celebration as best as we could, we also made special-anniversary goody bags for all hospital inpatients and outpatients and residents in our geriatric-care facilities — Kuakini Home and the intermediate- and skilled-nursing facilities. The bags were distributed on July 15 in conjunction with our anniversary date. Special anniversary bags were also given to the offices in the Kuakini Medical Plaza and Kuakini Physicians Tower.”

Spiker explained that there are approximately 950 employees who work full-time, part-time and PRN (pro re nata, or temporary) at Kuakini. Several employees have been working long-term. An employee who had worked at Kuakini for 50 years retired two years ago.

Spiker herself has been with Kuakini for 38 years. When she started, there were only two people in public relations. She has stayed at the same department this whole time, and has seen it expand to the current Marketing and Public Relations Department.

Meanwhile, Cheryl Tanaka, a registered nurse who is a manager of Kuakini’s Care Management and Medical Social Work department, has been with Kuakini for 41 years, starting as a nurse, then as a nursing manager, and now a manager at her current position. She is touched when patients’ family members refer friends and other family members to her, even a year after she had worked with them.

Tanaka states, “The people at Kuakini are like family. Everyone helps each other. You will see employees approach visitors who look lost and escort them to the department that they need to go to. Kuakini also provided opportunities to advance in my career. My previous managers took the time to teach me things that helped me advance to other job opportunities within Kuakini.”

Ronald Fujihara, the maintenance manager, has served Kuakini for 29 years. He feels gratified to have been chosen once as Employee of the Month. Spiker attests to his commitment: as needed, he comes to work early in the morning, late at night or on the weekends, going beyond job expectations to lend assistance.

Why did these employees choose to keep working for so long at Kuakini? Their response is the same: because of the people they work with, who are like family to them.  Ms. Spiker says that just like everybody else, employees are trying their best to overcome the pandemic and continue to serve the community.

One of the things they are proud of at Kuakini is their biomedical research program. The Kuakini Honolulu Heart Program (HHP), launched in 1965, focuses on studying heart and lung conditions, including heart disease, hypertension and stroke. Participants from the original program are still being followed and the data analyzed. In 2012, offspring studies were started; families of the original participants of HHP were subsequently tracked and analyzed for their own medical conditions. The ultimate goal is to discover, produce and promote healthy aging therapies and practices.

Kuakini is not limited to the hospital, but has branched into other entities. Kuakini Geriatric Care, Inc. is a non-profit organization that offers services for older adults in their skilled nursing facility, intermediate care facility and residential care home at the Hale Pulama Mau building, in collaboration with Queens Medical Center.

Meanwhile, Kuakini Foundation is a charitable organization similar to the Japanese Benevolent Society that had started the Kuakini journey. Kuakini Foundation’s fundraising efforts aim to help Kuakini continue to serve the people of Hawai’i.

“Ever since we opened in 1900, the hospital has depended heavily on community support, especially since we do not have any endowment funds,” Ms. Spiker states.

When asked how Kuakini has changed over the years, Ms. Spiker answers, “One of the biggest changes is the addition and upgrading of external and internal physical facilities. We have two separate buildings for physicians’ offices, a building for a residential care home and long-term care services, and an employee parking building. Internally, we continue to renovate rooms, offices, and common areas to keep up with modernization for comfort and safety.”

This is a big leap from the wooden two-story building that opened in 1900.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Kuakini reflects its name, the hospital descended from “many high ancestors”: from the first Japanese Charity Hospital, to the Japanese Hospital, to Kuakini Hospital and Home and finally to today’s Kuakini Medical Center.

Kuakini employees picked up deli sandwiches, cake, chips, drinks, popcorn, a goody bag, a protein bar and a face mask — gifts of gratitude and celebration.

Kuakini Health System is accepting donations of medical supplies and equipment at 347 N. Kuakini St. Personal protective equipment for healthcare purposes, and other medical supplies or equipment useable in a healthcare facility, are welcome. For information on how and what to donate visit the website kuakini.org/wps/portal/public/Patient-Information/Visitor-Information/medical-supply-donations .

Renelaine Pfister is a physical therapist and writer based on O‘ahu.


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