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That’s The Spirit

Hilton Raethel and his team at Healthcare Association of Hawai‘i have been the epitome of unwavering commitment to the well-being of the community. It’s the reason why they are being presented with this year’s St. Francis of Assisi Spirit Award.

As much of a natural as Hilton Raethel is at his job, it’s somewhat surprising that he didn’t even consider a career in health care until he was well into his 20s.

As he recalls, his future was unclear following high school graduation, and so he opted to work a variety of jobs while keeping his eyes peeled for his life’s calling. At length, the native of Adelaide, Australia, convinced himself that he needed to continue his search in America, where he planned to enroll at a university in California.

Hilton Raethel, at right, greets Hawai‘i Healthcare Hero Award winners at the 2019 HAH Awards and Scholarship Gala. PHOTO COURTESY HILTON RAETHEL

“The thinking was that I’d study abroad and go back to Australia. Well, I got my four-year degree, but I never got around to going back,” he chuckles.

Instead, opportunity came knocking after his wife, Kathy, was recruited for a nursing position at a nearby hospital. Suddenly, Raethel’s path forward began looking clearer, but it wouldn’t completely crystallize until a package deal was struck with the medical center.

“We leveraged the fact that they really wanted my wife and so I told them I was just looking for part-time work. They wound up offering me a part-time job and three weeks later, they offered me a full-time job,” says the man who eventually traded in his business degree for a pair of master’s degrees in public health and health administration.

The Raethels moved to Hawai‘i in 2000. Here, they enjoy a bit of family time together. Pictured are (from left) Steven, Ashley, Hilton, Kathy, Justin and Brydon. CHRIS SIMMONS PHOTO

In summing up his better-late-than-never story, Raethel says, “I literally found my calling in health care at a hospital in East Los Angeles.”

Thank heavens for that fortuitous job offer in the City of Angels, for without it, Hawai‘i would likely be without one of its leading figures in the health care profession. Maybe more importantly, the state would be missing that certain someone with the right demeanor and know-how — not to mention the right spirit — to help guide its citizenry through a dreadful pandemic.

The latter point is why Raethel, the current president and CEO of Healthcare Association of Hawai‘i, and his staffers will be honored July 30 with this year’s St. Francis of Assisi Spirit Award during a wine gala at Sheraton Waikīkī Hotel. Presented annually by St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawai‘i, the award is being bestowed upon the HAH team for its “abiding commitment to unreservedly serve the community throughout the pandemic.”

“As with the Sisters of St. Francis who came to Hawai‘i in 1883 to care for those suffering from Hansen’s disease, HAH was a breath of fresh air,” say the organizers of the event. “The HAH team provided solutions to complex challenges during the pandemic, including surge staffing to supplement Hawai‘i’s frontline health care teams and respiratory support for Hawai‘i’s patients impacted by COVID-19.”

Raethel calls the honor “very, very rewarding” for an association that functions as a bridge between the payer and provider sectors and one that represents approximately 170 health care organizations around the state — including all of its acute care hospitals.

“HAH exists to serve its members,” he explains. “We’re in this unique position where we can bring people together. If an issue comes up, we can get our payers together, we can get our members together, and we can get the regulatory bodies together and be a convener.

“One of the beauties of living in Hawai‘i is that people have this incredible sense of community, and especially during the pandemic they know that we’ve got to work together,” he adds. “We can’t rely on a cavalry driving across the border with trucks and all that kinds of stuff.”

While it may not be a cavalry, the HAH team does function extraordinarily well as a quick-moving, life-saving unit.

Over the past two years, Raethel and his staff of 20 members have ridden into harm’s way on numerous occasions, willingly expanding their mission to meet the constantly changing needs of state residents battling a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

For example, when the drug Remdesivir became available for use, HAH — in close coordination with the state Department of Health — took the reins and coordinated the delivery of this remedy to hospitals statewide.

“What we did was get all our medical directors together with all of our hospitals — because Remdesivir was only to be used in a hospital setting — and they came up with a list of guidelines about a hierarchy,” Raethel explains. “So, no matter whether you were in Hilo or Kona, or on Moloka‘i or Lāna‘i, or in Honolulu, if you met the criteria, there was an equal chance of you getting the drug.”

HAH also came through during one of the most tense moments of the pandemic when Airgas, the largest producer and supplier of oxygen in the state, notified local health officials last summer that it was about to run out of oxygen in 10 days. Knowing that so many statewide ICU units were counting on the availability of high-flow oxygen for respiratory support for their patients, Raethel and his staff took immediate action to resolve the issue.

“Within 72 hours, we had a multifaceted plan to address the situation,” he recalls. “Long story short, because of all the incredible collaboration, we were able to avert that crisis. So while we never actually ran short of oxygen, we were that close.”

Raethel is appreciative of the praise HAH has received throughout the pandemic, but he makes careful note that his team couldn’t have done anything without the autonomy that both Gov. David Ige and the state Department of Health granted the association to make its own decisions.

“We kept them fully informed of what we were doing, but the governor and others did not interfere. They did not jump in and say, ‘We think you should be doing this,’ but they trusted us and we trusted them, and it all worked very, very well,” says Raethel. “We were able to have that very close, collaborative and cooperative arrangement that did not exist in many other states, where the hospitals felt their hands were tied, where they couldn’t do those things they wanted to do or had to do those things they didn’t want to do. We did not have that situation in the state of Hawai‘i.”

For Raethel, his success with HAH can be attributed to his decades’ worth of experience in the health care industry. Prior to joining the association in 2017, he worked for a dozen years in Southern California, including at Loma Linda University Medical Center, before he and his wife (who retired as president of Adventist Health Castle last year) moved to the islands in 2000. Thereafter, he was welcomed at Straub Clinic and Hospital, Hawai‘i Pacific Health and Hawai‘i Medical Services Association, where he served as senior vice president of foundational services.

In his view, each stop along the way has provided him with valuable real-life experiences that have prepared him for his current position, which he calls “the best job in the world.”

“I’ve had phenomenal opportunities that led me to this role,” states the 65-year-old Raethel. “I was in the right place at the right time when this opportunity came up.”

Being in the right place means, in part, finding the right solutions to combat the current challenges the industry faces — most notably, the shortage of workers because of resignations, relocation, burnout and other factors. Yet despite the dwindling numbers in the health care workforce, Raethel believes better days are ahead.

“We’re working incredibly hard to increase the pipeline of health care workers. We’re also working with our high schools, our community colleges, our universities to ramp up and get more people into the pipeline. It’s a challenge not only for us here in Hawai‘i, but nationally as well,” he says.

While the work goes on for Raethel and his team, he says he’s looking forward to the upcoming award ceremony.

The evening will be an opportunity to celebrate the positive that has happened in the state over the past two years, and remind everyone how a unified effort can help the public through a particularly difficult period.

“I am so proud of my team and what the members have done and how each of them has contributed, worked together, pulled together to support our members and this state during this continuing pandemic,” he says. “Despite all the suffering and despite the deaths, we still have the lowest infection rate and the lowest death rate (across the nation), and that’s something all of us have a right to be proud of.”