Proud ʻImi Hoʻōla graduate reflects on the program that put her on a path to medicine

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Dr. Dee-Ann Carpenter was born on Hawaiʻi island and was raised in Nāʻālehu, proudly known as the southernmost community in the United States. Dr. Carpenter knew she always wanted to help people, and on ʻImi Hoʻōla's 50th anniversary, she reflects on the program that helped shape who she is today. 

Q: Let's start with your background growing up on Hawaiʻi Island. Many describe your hometown, Nāʻālehu, as a quiet, rural town. How did the seed of a medical career get planted?

A: I lived next door to the plantation doctor. I was always interested in science and math, and I have always wanted to help people. I moved to Hilo in the 8th grade and attended St. Joseph High School. My best friend in high school was interested in being a doctor, and my mother said that she talked to me while I was sleeping, saying, "you want to be a doctor..." I moved to Honolulu to go to UH Mānoa and received a BA in Zoology. 

Q: How did you hear about ʻImi Hoʻōla, and what made you want to apply?

A: I was doing some research in the Haumana Biomedical Research Program. I was interested in teaching and was debating whether to get a PhD or an MD when I heard about the ʻImi Hoʻōla program. I took the GRE and the MCAT, then got into ʻImi. It was the most challenging year, learning to study differently and more thoroughly. I liken it to all four years of college rolled up into one year and more. Back in those days, you had to not only do well in class but also take the MCATs twice, at the beginning and the end of ʻImi, to see if you've improved. I matriculated into JABSOM, and it prepared me well.

Q: Has ʻImi changed over the years?

A: In the mid-1990s, the ʻImi Hoʻōla program became the ʻImi Hoʻōla Post-baccalaureate Program, and when you passed the year, you had an automatic berth into the first-year class. When I was in ʻImi, out of roughly 20 students, only 5-7 students were accepted to JABSOM. Two from my class repeated ʻImi and got into med school the following year, and five of us got into JABSOM via the Kulia Program (what became of the Dean's Guest Program). ʻImi continues to be very tough, helping students grow personally and professionally. The students who come out of ʻImi tend to be the leaders in JABSOM. They are well-prepared for learning and doing especially well in Problem-Based Learning.

Q: How has it helped you succeed in your career?

A: Truly, if it weren't for the ʻImi Hoʻōla Program, I would not be a physician today. ʻImi has helped me grow as a leader, learn "how to learn" and helped in my resilience.  

Q: What were your goals upon graduating from the program and JABSOM?

A: I have always said that I wanted to become a doctor to help Native Hawaiians, for if we help those with the worst health disparities in their homeland, we will help everyone else here in Hawaiʻi. 

Q: Through your decades of care, you achieved it. How rewarding is it to have made such an impact on the health of Hawaiʻi while also preparing the next generation of physicians?

A: After my Internal Medicine residency, I started working at the Medical Arts Clinic in Wahiawā and was able to care for people from Mililani to the North Shore and teach and work with the Family Medicine residents at Wahiawā General Hospital. This was so fulfilling, and I absolutely loved working out there. I started teaching medical students at the clinic as well and enjoyed that, too. When the opportunity arose to work at JABSOM in the Program for Native Hawaiian Health, later becoming the Department of Native Hawaiian Health (that was 20 years ago), I felt it was my calling. There, I could teach not just one student at the bedside but many students who would then go out to care for Native Hawaiians and the people of Hawaiʻi. I moved my clinical practice into town and have enjoyed working here since then. In 2019, I reduced my practice to do more teaching in the Office of Medical Education. I still teach ambulatory Internal Medicine to third-year medical students and work with the Family Medicine residents when I can. It has been a lifelong dream to be where I am, to be able to touch the lives of students who can take what we teach them and care for patients in the way that they should be cared for. I am able to meld my Western allopathic training with my Native Hawaiian cultural values that I grew up with. I have been blessed to have learned from those who came before me, and see those I have trained going out and spreading the good work to our patients and the community.

Q: Your story is one of many to come from the first 50 years of ʻImi. How can we help the program for the next 50 and beyond? 

A: As the founding President of the Friends of ʻImi Hoʻōla, a 501(c)(3) non-profit since 1999, we have been supporting the ʻImi Hoʻōla students in many ways: mentally, spiritually, positive encouragement, books, snacks and a little bit of financial support over the years. We could always use donations:  Friends of Imi Ho'ola, 3054 Ala Poha Place Apt. 402, Honolulu, HI 96818.