by Colin M. Stewart
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
For 20 years, Pearl “Aunty Nona” Kaho’okaulana, 71, worked as a bus driver in Hilo, delivering isle keiki to school and safely home again to their families.
Now, she finds herself ailing, confined to a wheelchair, struggling to remain connected to her community as she resides with several other kupuna in a long-term care home.
But on Wednesday, one of her former passengers was able to offer Aunty Nona a ride, when the Hilo Medical Center Foundation presented the hospital’s Extended Care Facility with a new, 15-passenger van. The $60,000 vehicle was purchased with money raised by the HMC Foundation.
Facility nurse manager Sheri Shaw, who rode Aunty Nona’s bus as a youngster, said the new bus would enable the facility’s kupuna to take much-needed breaks from the home to go “holo holo,” or ride about town.
“She (Aunty Nona) took such good care of us, and now we can return the favor. … It just feels really warm and wonderful to be able to give back to our elders,” Shaw said Wednesday.
Aunty Nona said the van was much appreciated, and will do wonders for her and her fellow residents, whose lives can become sedentary and tedious at times.
“We have no choices,” she said. “Some of the people here are crying. We have no more family, no more babies, no one comes to see them. So I tell them ‘We are family. Thank God we are still in the land of the living. We need to love each other.’”
With reliable, safe transportation, she said, residents will be able to go shopping, sightseeing, visit art exhibits and other day-to-day activities that most people take for granted.
According to HMC Foundation Executive Director Lori Rogers, the facility’s old bus had outlived its usefulness by several years: “It was at least 20 years old,” she said. “And it was constantly breaking down. It would happen again and again.”
And even when the van was working, it wasn’t big enough, said nursing supervisor Pam Bruce.
“It had straps to hold down two wheelchairs, so we could only take two people at a time,” she said. “Every time we wanted to take our residents on an excursion, we’d have to drive back and forth, taking two at a time.”
Rogers said a new van had long been on a list of possible projects for her foundation, and it finally rose to the top of her list about a year and a half ago. She and the foundation’s board members began reaching out to other foundations seeking grants and donations to fund the van.
“We wrote eight grant applications for the last year and a half,” Rogers said. “It was a lot of work, very time intensive. Believe it or not, this happened very fast (compared to other funding efforts).”
Among the donors that made the van a reality were the HMSA Foundation, McInerny Foundation, Alexander and Baldwin Foundation, and the Atherton Family Foundation.
It features a rear wheelchair entrance with a powered lift in addition to the front loading doors, four wheelchair seats, and 10 passenger seats. Rogers said she expects the vehicle to put in a good 15 years of active duty.
According to HMC Regional Chief Nurse Dan Brinkman, Big Island residents have always had to deal with transportation difficulty in making visits to health care providers. The issue facing the extended care residents was “a reverse transportation problem.”
“There have been studies that show that being housebound for weeks on end can adversely affect your mood,” he said, adding that one’s mental state can have an effect on his or her physical health.
“This is a quality of life issue, and very important for the residents. It may not sound like much to you or I, but when you live here, you don’t have much. You and I can always get in our car and drive somewhere. They can’t,” he said.
Brinkman said that the extended care facility houses an average of 100 residents, with 112 beds total. As a “safety net facility,” it is the last place elderly people can turn when they have no family or friends to care for them.
“This is often a place you go when you have no place else to go. That makes it (the van) doubly important,” he said. “We have an obligation to do right by them.”
For 69-year-old Emily Souza, the new van will give her an opportunity to do some much needed clothes shopping.
“I gotta go shopping,” she said Wednesday morning with a smile. “Right now, laundry and me are competing against each other.”
Rogers has already turned to her next project: She plans on renovating the old cottage at the rear of the hospital so it can house visiting medical students and residents. Those interested in helping out can visit the Hilo Medical Center Foundation page on Facebook.com/hilomedicalcenterfoundation, or its forthcoming website, expected to go live next week: http://www.hilomedicalcenterfoundation.org.