December 6, 2023
“When we saw the fires, our first thought was, ‘How can we help?’”
October 2, 2023
By Jennifer Walker
On the morning of Wednesday, August 9 , PA student Kaleo Lee woke up on the University of Washington’s (UW) MEDEX Northwest campus in Kona, Hawaii to news of the wildfires in Lahaina, a seaside community of around 13,000 people in Maui. The media said that the wildfires, which spread quickly due to 60-mile-a-hour winds, demolished much of the popular tourist town within hours. Numbers as of late September indicate that 97 people died, making this the deadliest blaze in more than a century.
But on that morning, when all of these details were not yet known, Lee—a student in UW Medicine’s MEDEX Northwest PA Program—felt a personal connection to the fires. Maui is only an island away from Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, where he is attending school. As president of Kona Class 4, the student society for his class, Lee texted the group’s other officers with an idea: Their class should hold a donation drive to help those affected by the wildfires.
“This is what my classmates and I want to do with our careers: to help underserved communities when there’s a disaster,” says Lee, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I thought this was a unique opportunity for us to be able to organize something like this in the capacity of a student.”
The following week, Lee and his fellow students collected 80 boxes of donated items, hundreds of gifts, and nearly $2,400 in gift cards through an Amazon Wish List. They found King’s Cathedral & Chapels, a church in Maui that set up a donation warehouse to assist with recovery efforts, and sent all of the donations on a cargo plane. Lee and four of his classmates then flew to Maui to volunteer at King’s Cathedral, sorting and distributing donated items to community members in need.
“It was really inspiring for us to be able to organize this drive and help our community because that sets the standard for what we’re trying to do with our careers and with this campus,” Lee says.
Becoming a PA is Personal
After working toward a career as an athletic trainer or physical therapist for a professional sports team, Lee—a lifelong athlete who played water polo for California Lutheran University—changed his goals and decided to become a PA. He wanted to work with patients from diagnosis through treatment. Lee was also influenced by his extended family on the Big Island and their experiences accessing healthcare.
First, Lee’s grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 2000s. Although she was able to receive chemotherapy close to home, she had to stay with family for four months in California to receive radiation. Recently, his aunt had a stroke and had to take a plane to Oahu, about a 30- to 45-minute ride, for care. And his grandfather, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which made it difficult for him to breathe, was treated by his primary care provider instead of a pulmonologist because this type of specialty care has been nonexistent to extremely limited on the island, Lee says.
“My grandfather passed away in 2018, and I thought, ‘I could be that provider in a community for people’s grandparents and families,’” he adds.
His family’s experience is not unlike others living in Hawaii. According to Hawaii Pacific AHEC’s 2022 Physician Workforce Report, Hawaii has a shortage of 776 physicians statewide, and pediatric and adult pulmonology are two of the eight subspecialty areas in need of providers. With the ability to potentially address some of this provider shortage, UW Medicine’s MEDEX Northwest PA Program in Hawaii opened in the fall of 2020—the campus located only 25 minutes away from Lee’s family.
“That was a big reason why I chose the school,” he says. “I’m able to be where my family is and to study and hopefully practice medicine in this community that inspired me to become a PA.” Lee started the PA program in the summer of 2023 and is currently interested in family medicine and primary care, orthopaedics, and pulmonology.
Of Lee’s class of 24 students, 17 of them, along with three students in their clinical year, were part of the donation drive to support those affected by the wildfires in Lahaina. “Most of the people in my class are either from Hawaii or have some connection to the Hawaiian community. And the first thing you’ve got to remember is that it’s a very caring community,” he says. “So, for us, when we saw the fires, our first thought was, ‘How can we help?’”
Showing Up for the Lahaina Community
The details of the Kona Class 4 donation drive came together quickly. Lee sent messages to the other officers in the Kona 4 Student Society—including Kira Nakamoto, class vice president, and Aleah Castillo, class secretary—as well as Tori Agoot, staff program coordinator, and within a few hours, they were on the phone discussing logistics. By that evening, the group had created and posted a flyer about the drive on social media and printed 200 copies to post in stores and public areas around the community. They asked for toiletries, baby supplies, feminine care products, non-perishable food, and water.
Four days later, on August 13, Lee and his classmates held two donation drives: one on the UW Medicine’s MEDEX Northwest campus in Kona and the other at the Nihilo Night Market. The 80 boxes they collected represented 2,300 pounds of donated items.
Due to the overwhelming response they received, the group also decided to start an Amazon Wish List. The success of the list was boosted in part by an interview with Lee featured on KRON 4 Bay Area News, and they ultimately brought in around 300 gifts, as well as $2,400 in gift cards. With the cards, Lee and his classmates purchased full-size bottles of shampoo and conditioner, laundry detergent, and shaving cream—items that were requested by King’s Cathedral.
The next step was getting thousands of pounds of donated products to Maui for distribution. One of Lee’s classmates has a relative who works for Aloha Air Cargo. Lee and nine other students drove eight cars filled with donations to the airport, where they were loaded on a cargo plane and shipped to Maui for free.
From there, Lee and four other students—Justin Grandalen, Nguyen Chau, Anna Dola-Larson, and Liana Brouillette—decided they wanted to help more and distribute goods to those in need. They flew to Maui in mid-August to volunteer for two days with King’s Cathedral, located some distance from the center of the wildfires. There, community members arrived and requested items they needed, including quantities and sizes. Lee and the other volunteers took their lists and went shopping among the donated items, then helped community members load them into their transportation.
As a volunteer, Lee found the biggest challenge was sorting all of the donated items. “The donation center at King’s Cathedral looked like a Costco by the time we left.” But there were ample volunteers to help, and Lee was happy to see so many people jump in to assist in the recovery efforts.
“It was really fulfilling for us to see the project from the very start to its conclusion,” he says. “The PA profession was designed to serve underserved communities. So, taking that motto to heart—and being from a community that cares for each other and from a family that gave me a foundation to really push beyond what is expected—really inspires me to go beyond as a future PA.”
Jennifer Walker is a freelance writer in Baltimore, MD. Contact Jennifer at [email protected].