Profiles In Heroism

Are heroes born or made? Are bravery and courage cultivated in one’s DNA? Or do life experience and training mold heroics?

The truth is that most heroes are quiet forces of achievement. They might not be faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and able to jump tall buildings in a single bound. But in their humility they pay dearly for their courage and often go without recognition.

While the born-or-made theory rages on, we give a lot of credence to real-life examples of people who step up to heroism just because it’s the right thing to do.

That is the premise of one of our state’s most unique recognition programs that focuses on health care employees. It seeks the spotlight for and sings the praises of everyday superstars in the health-care sector.

The annual Hawai‘i Healthcare Heroes program presented by the Healthcare Association of Hawai‘i (HAH) is the nation’s only patient-nominated recognition program for health care workers. Currently in its fifth year, the distinctive effort captures the grit and grace of medical professionals, social workers, lab technicians, pharmacists, counselors and equipment providers.

As HAH president and CEO Hilton Raethel puts it, “In the ever-changing, dynamic field of health care, we don’t want people losing sight of what’s truly important — the essence of human beings caring for others when they are in their hour of need.”

Stirring accounts of patient-health care worker interactions and triumphs are documented in 130 entries this year. Stories of kindred aloha and personal miracles poured in from every corner of Hawai‘i.

The tough job of selecting five winning entries went to judges Rick Hamada of KHVH Radio/iHEART Media, Scott Humber of Hawai‘i News Now and Michael Tsai of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“The impact those who were nominated had on the people they served was literally life changing,” says Hamada. “What stood out to me in assessing the nominees was just how special their talent and dedication is to their charges.”

“Very often the heroes we love best are the ones who represent the best of ourselves,” adds Tsai. “This year’s winners are not only exemplars of their given professions, they’re also people who demonstrate the best of what our Hawai‘i community is all about.”

Those who study heroes — yes, those astute observers exist — suggest that five principal qualities are possessed by heroes: selflessness, courage, caring, patience and humility Do the acclaimed winners of this year’s Hawai‘i Healthcare Heroes possess these traits? The answer is “by the quart in every vein,” to use the lyrics of a Broadway tune.

Meet the 2018 HAH Healthcare Heroes — Christie Izutsu, MD; Valerie Janikowski, RN, BSN; Dee Ono, RN, CWS, CRNI; Rebecca Sawai, MD; and Lesley Yoshimori, RN, MPH — and note how those virtues emerge.


The public is invited to join the Healthcare Association of Hawai‘i to recognize and applaud this year’s winners, who represent hundreds of other dedicated workers who make a difference in the lives of others.

Healthcare Heroes will be congratulated at HAH’s Awards & Scholarship Gala at 5 p.m., Oct. 20, at Ko‘olau Ballrooms in K°ne‘ohe. The “Black and Gold Masquerade Ball” event promises to be a festive and triumphant way to say thank you to the community, with a tinge of autumn-Halloween spirit. Tickets at $100 per person or tables at $1,000 each can be ordered by calling 521-8961 or by going online at

Bring your grateful hearts and smiles.

Honoring Hawai‘i’s Five Healthcare Heroes


Valerie Janikowski, RN
Formerly with Ke `Ola Hou Lana‘i
Currently with Arcadia Home Health (Lana‘i)

From the island of Lāna‘i comes a courageous story from resident Wallace Hanog of Janikowski, a home health care worker who “saved my legs and perhaps my life.”

The outlook in 2015 for Hanog was “bleak and depressing” when he was challenged with kidney problems resulting from diabetes, neuropathy (nerve dysfunction) of hands and feet, osteomyelitis (bone infection), and foot/ankle ulcers.

“Several doctors advised that amputating my legs would be the best way to prolong my life,” he recalls.

Janikowski, formerly with Ke Ola Hou ‘O Lāna‘i Na Pu‘uwai and now with Arcadia Home Health (Lāna‘i), was undeterred by the complex medical scenario. As a home health nurse, she devotedly tended to cleaning and dressing his ulcers, giving insulin shots, monitoring intravenous treatments and organizing medication intake.

She also arranged for off-island medical check-ups, including air and ground transportation. It was comprehensive, compassionate caregiving.

Hanog is pleased to report, “Now almost four years later, I still have both of my legs. I am able to walk slowly with the aid of a walker. Valerie is my and many others’ hero on Lāna‘i.”


Christie Izutsu, MD
Kidney Clinic of Hawai‘i

Izutsu, a nephrologist at Kidney Clinic of Hawai‘i, was nominated by Eddie Kaneshiro of Kalihi. His father, Richard Kaneshiro, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2015 and two years later, suffered acute kidney damage.

Daily visits to the patient, coordination with attending nurses and hospital doctors, plus her well-articulated explanations of treatments impressed family members.

Kaneshiro says, “Her visits always brought a smile to my dad’s face and to ours. She brought him hope … it was as if my father was her own.”

Izutsu attended her patient’s dialysis sessions three times a week, even at night. She also assured that scheduling did not interfere with his chemotherapy needs. When surgery was required, she was there two hours before to provide emotional support.

Richard lost this battle with cancer and renal disease in February. But his appreciative son reflects, “Patients can sometimes feel like just another number, but with Dr. Izutsu, every patient is her No. 1 priority, and it shows.”


Dee Ono, RN, CWS, CRNI
Formerly with West Hawai‘i
Home Health Services

Another hero, Ono, a nurse formerly with West Hawai‘i Home Health Services, comes from the Big Island. The heroics of this caring registered nurse are told by Pamela Punihaole of Kailua-Kona.

Her husband, Clayton, a Vietnam veteran, lost his sight and battled diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure neuropathy, PTSD, depression and anxiety. In 2004, he faced end-stage renal failure and refused dialysis treatment.

But heroes have a way of appearing just when there seems to be no hope.

Ono reassured Clayton that his family and medical team truly cared about him, and that in their trusted hands, things could be different.

It was a turning point. Ono supported her patient at dialysis and podiatry check-ups as well as provided in-home care.

“Most importantly,” Punihaole recounts, “Dee saved him from amputation in a miraculous chain of events that even amazed the vascular surgeon and supporting doctors.”


Lesley Yoshimori,RN, MPH
Family Medicine Clinic at Tripler Army Medical Center

The most altruistic deed of heroes is what Jasmine Kimura of Mililani puts succinctly in her entry. Her nomination of Yoshimori, a registered nurse at Tripler Army Medical Center, Family Medicine Clinic, declares, “Lesley Yoshimori saved my brother’s life.”

Is there a more selfless and death-defying feat than that? But couched in routine duty and silent gratification, it’s worthy of special recognition.

At the core of Kimura’s story is the role Yoshimori played in getting her brother a heart transplant. It seems poetic that heartfelt compassion led to giving a person a new lease on life.

“In September 2017, my brother was diagnosed with amyloidosis (abnormal protein in bone marrow),” Kimura explains. “By early December 2017, it impacted his heart to the point that without a transplant he would die within months.”

Today, her brother is three months post-transplantation and recovering well. “Nurse Yoshimori provided quality care for my brother; advocated for him and our family; focused on care coordination; helped us navigate the waters of Tricare health insurance; and liaised with Tricare, Tripler and Stanford.”

Yet for a dedicated nurse who stepped up, it was just another day at work.


Rebecca Sawai, MD
Kaiser Permanente Hawai‘i

Cancer treatments are challenges for both patients and professionals. It is not an easy journey.

From Wahiawā, O‘ahu, comes a personal testimony by Jeffrey Peterson for Sawai, a general surgeon at Kaiser Permanente Hawai‘i.

Peterson was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer that spread to his liver. He was given four to six months to live. He has been married for 34 years and has two sons in their late 20s.

“I was given a medical plan of attack to extend my life with chemotherapy, radiation and two surgeries that I termed ‘the deluxe package.’ “Based on Dr. Sawai’s communication skills, empathy and vision, I found trust and confidence in her,” Peterson says. “I agreed to the deluxe package.”

Heroes beget other heroes, as Peterson affirms, saying, “It has now been almost two years since my liver surgery. I have watched both of my boys get married. We have a grandson on the way. I have gotten many of my fellow paddlers, watermen, family and friends to get checked for colorectal cancer. I also reach out and spend time with other cancer patients. All because of Dr. Sawai.”