As Hawai‘i makes progress containing COVID-19, we can thank medical professionals for helping keep our communities healthy by working around the clock and traveling throughout our islands during the pandemic to conduct testing and deliver care.
We have been honored to support the selfless efforts of these healthcare heroes, including doctors, nurses, assistants and volunteers who have flown nearly 500 complimentary Neighbor Island flights since April. We’ve extended the program through the end of May to ensure their critical services continue to reach communities statewide.
A frequent guest onboard our flights has been Dr. Catherine Oliver, an emergency medicine physician who works at the Wound Care Center at The Queen’s Medical Center on O‘ahu. Oliver is part of a group of five other physicians and physician assistants who take turns rotating shifts at wound care centers throughout the state, including Queen’s North Hawai‘i Community Hospital on the Island of Hawai‘i and the Molokai General Hospital. As they travel, Oliver and her team remain focused on ensuring patients are receiving the consistent care they need during the pandemic.
“Being able to maintain this service safely and not let [COVID-19] interfere with caring for our Neighbor Island patients has been so important to us. I think it’s much safer for me to travel than my patients, so I am happy I can still do that,” Oliver said. “The patients are so grateful to not have to travel weekly to get their care, and it is so much better for them medically. Plus, I love going…so it’s a win-win-win.”
During her visits to Moloka’i and the Island of Hawai‘i, Oliver treats patients diagnosed with COVID-19 while continuing to work with wound care cases. She notes that patient communication has been more important than ever to comfort people experiencing anxiety from the pandemic.
“I find myself acknowledging their fear as valid but also letting them know about the way how we are trying to keep them safe and working to keep patients out of the hospital as much as possible,” Oliver said.
The use of more personal protective gear (PPE) such as face shields, N-95 masks and gowns have also impacted patient communication, she said.
“While [PPE] keeps our patients and ourselves safer, it makes it more challenging to communicate and connect,” Oliver said. “It’s not so bad for my existing patients, but for people I am seeing for the first visit, it can be weird to meet them this way and sometimes harder to hear each other.”
Rene Pagaoa, vice president and executive director of clinical operation at Premier Medical Group Hawaii (PMGH), said her team has also had to be nimble and adjust to changing conditions. Its urgent care unit in Windward O‘ahu now serves as a COVID-19 testing facility and PMGH providers have transitioned to virtual care services.
“If someone started having a cough or needed to be seen for routine examinations, we’d assess and treat them through a telehealth platform,” Pagaoa said. “We do have some home visits for some patients that need more hands-on treatment but want to avoid them having them come in.”
PMGH’s clinics throughout O‘ahu and the Island of Hawai‘i offer specialized services ranging from urgent and family care to pain management, physical rehabilitation and occupational medicine. In response to the pandemic, it has since added drive-through, walk-up, and onsite COVID-19 testing on O‘ahu, Maui, the Island of Hawai‘i, and Moloka‘i – including sites dedicated for seniors and the homeless.
As many as 20 PMGH staff have relied on our complimentary medical travel program to provide COVID-19 services throughout the Neighbor Islands.
“We’ve been flying a mixed team of our O‘ahu-based nurses, physicians, physician assistants, medical assistants, and staff out to Maui and the Big Island about once a week, and also have some specific individuals flying back and forth throughout the work,” Pagaoa said. Staff not traveling, she added, continue treating patients, physically in the office, virtually through telehealth and in-person with home visits.
After their long workdays traveling the state, Pagaoa and Oliver agree there’s been a sense of shared pride throughout the medical community.
“In the beginning, it was quite stressful, and I think almost everyone on my staff has at one time reached a breaking point, but we’ve also adapted,” Pagaoa said. “My staff is tight-knit and if anything, we’ve grown stronger and have learned to lean on each other and pick each other up when we need it. The experience has brought us closer together and has made my employees feel good about their work. Everything we do, pre-, during and post-COVID-19 will always be for what’s best for our community and state.”
“I've seen a lot of extra kindness between colleagues, despite the added stress and uncertainly,” Oliver said. “Most of the conversations I have with my colleagues from other specialties often start with ‘How are things for you?’ There is an understanding that all of us are affected in some way by this and it is heartwarming to see everyone checking in on each other.”
On behalf of our entire Hawaiian Airlines ‘ohana, mahalo nui loa to Hawai‘i’s selfless essential workers.