UH Med Now

Flight emergency demonstrates persistence of UH medical school educators

Date: May 19th, 2015 in Alumni News, Faculty, JABSOM News    Print or PDF

By Malia Lee, MD

It would have been a perfect day if not for the two little explosions from our plane’s left wing occurring about fifteen minutes into our flight.

We had gotten up early for our 7 a.m. departure. John A Burns School of Medicine physician Dr. Dee-Ann Carpenter, cultural consultant Tiffnie Kakalia and I had prepared for a visit to Kohala High School on Hawaiʻi Island to speak with Mr. Kometani’s and Ms. Tanaka’s Health Academy students about becoming doctors.

We had presented last year in collaboration with Kohala High School Principal Janette Snelling. Since then, our medical school’s Department of Native Hawaiian Health had gained the support of the Earl Bakken Foundation. We were excited to see the students and teachers once again and had every minute planned. Little did we know that the students were also eager to see us and would be waiting…a long time.

I had taken for granted the hundreds of times I had flown without incident when suddenly a “POOM” —“POOM” shook the plane. I opened my eyes to see a startled look on the flight attendant beside me, who was mouthing the words “what was that?” to another flight attendant. The two of them sprung into action, hustling to the front of the plane then returning with fire extinguisher in hand as the cabin started to fill with a smoky haze and odor. The plane dropped below the clouds and I saw the west end of Molokaʻi. I could only imagine that the two pilots thinking the same thing, “What was that?” as they quickly adjusted and responded to the unexpected.

The pilots maintained a controlled descent parallel to the south shore of Molokaʻi but the left engine had stopped running. A million things crossed my mind; first, we were going to make an early landing. I stared out at the calm sea thinking that if we landed in the water I could swim to shore. I just had to focus on getting out of the plane. The recent Malaysia Airlines plane crashes and the water landing by Captain Sully in the Hudson River flashed through my mind, but I remained optimistic. I began to concentrate my thoughts on the captains of our vessel and the skill they were demonstrating to keep us in the air. The crew worked hard to maintain calm as hearts leapt in their chests while facing what could become a horribly frightening situation.

The first rule: remain calm
As a doctor, I would deal with one or a few life threatening events at a time. My first rule was to remain calm. That is what the flight attendants were doing. Thankfully the plane was not full but, nonetheless, I felt compassion for the captains who were, at the moment, keeping all of our lives on course.

We coasted by Molokaʻi with Maui in site as the next possible landing area. We made a fast landing, stopping quickly at the end of the runway as the smoke began to spread throughout the cabin. Two ladies ran to the front of the plane. One of them saying, “I gotta get off this plane!” The rest of the passengers quickly scurried to the open seats at the front of the plane. Firefighters on the ground doused the aircraft with fire retardant foam, and a door in the front was opened to release the smoke. We survived. We were all okay. NO water landing. Everything was going to be all right. Now, I needed to get to Kona.

Janette Snelling was the first person I called from the plane. We were going to be late and I had to let her know. My team was still on a mission to get to Kohala High School and despite this slight diversion we were determined to get there. Knowing that we would not make it for the first class we felt it was still worth trying to do even if we just hit two classes. There would have to be another plane in Maui that would take us to Kona. Little did we know that the airport had closed and all planes were sent out because of our emergency landing. “Wow,” I thought, “this was kind of a big deal.”

Only now, I realize that I should have hugged those Maui Airport Firefighters and given them my deepest mahalo as they stood by making sure that we were all okay. They weren’t just strong and handsome, they were amazing! I hope there never is a next time but mahalo Maui Airport and your amazing fire/rescue crew! Mahalo, too, for the Hawaiian Air Captains on Flight 118 for saving our lives and getting us in safely and to the flight attendants for keeping their cool when they were probably just as scared as we should have been.

Why not call it a day?
When we arrived at the school over two hours late the office staff said “I can’t believe you came and didn’t just call it a day and go home.” When we saw Mr. Kometani and Ms. Tanaka’s classes we thanked them for being our inspiration and for working hard in their classes. The students were enthusiastic to see us and welcomed us with their attention.They were the reason for our trip and we let them know that they are so important to Kohala, to Hawaiʻi Island and to the State and we were not going to let anything get in our way of our destination.

Persevere, though the journey can be tumultuous
We explained to them how our journey to becoming medical doctors was related to our tumultuous journey to Kohala; how we set our minds on a goal and did not give up despite the obstacles in our way; how we might have let some failures turn us back but instead we kept going; how we were trained to keep calm in the face of an emergency; and, I would add, how important it is for us to pass along the torch of hope and perseverance that no fire retardant foam will extinguish. Tiffnie Kakalia’s, Dr. Carpenter’s and my families hailed from the Big Island communities of Naʻalehu, Hilo, Honokaʻa, Panaʻewa, and Kohala. We had come from the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the University of Hawaiʻi medical school to share our stories with keiki o ka ʻāina o Kohala. We have faced many personal and academic obstacles in our lives to become doctors and we never gave up. We are on a mission to continue to serve the people of Hawaiʻi by inspiring the next generation. IMUA!

“That’s not what we do”
Later in the afternoon we learned that a passenger from our plane and one from a passing plane had seen flames coming from the left wing. We were proud for having moved fearlessly on to our destination. People asked us “How could you get on another plane?” or “Why didn’t you just go back home?” In our debriefing we asked ourselves why we didn’t turn back and “call it a day.” The answer is simple. That it is not what we do.

Kakalia said, “This is not just our work but it is who we are. We don’t just work for the University, we work for the people of Hawaiʻi and for those who do not have all that we know they should. How can we turn back when these are our families and they are important to us?” The thought of turning back never occurred to us.

If not for the health and futures of our children, then what would our futures be? Patience, courage, focus, calmness and perseverance against adversity are at the heart of the lessons we hope to pass on. Mahalo, students and teachers of Kohala High school for being our inspiration. We hope to live to see all of your dreams come true.

About the Author, and the Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence
Dr. Malia Lee is a Family Practice physician, the director for the Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence at the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine and President of the Friends of ʻImi Hoʻōla. Her grand children attend Kohala High School and Elementary and her husband, Dennis Lewis, is an alumni. She leads team members Dr. Dee-Ann Carpenter, doctor of Internal Medicine, and Tiffnie Kakalia, cultural consultant, in their efforts to increase the representation of Native Hawaiian and other underrepresented underserved and disadvantaged students in medical school. Kohala High School students are requesting mentors within the community to help them to gain some experience in specific fields of interest that would aid in their pursuit of healthcare careers.

To support Kohala High school students in gaining experience in health care field please contact their school counselor at Kohala High school. You can support the ʻImi Hoʻōla Program for underrepresented, disadvantaged students on their journey to medical school through tax-deductible donations to the 501(c)3 non-profit organization Friends of ʻImi Hoʻōla at 651 Ilalo St MEB #306 Honolulu, HI, 96813.

About ʻImi Hoʻōla
For more information about getting into medical school through the ʻImi Hoʻōla Post-baccalaureate Program, see: the ʻImi Hoʻōla website.