Training as a general surgeon was grueling and incredibly comprehensive but Genia Taitano, MD, MPH, says amidst the intensity of the fast-paced and complex job, she found the operating room to be a quiet escape within the busy hospital. “There is a lot of adrenaline involved but thereʻs a little bit of zen in there too,” said the JABSOM 2016 alumna.
For Taitano, the OR is a place where she can fully concentrate on the task at hand. It brings her a sense of comfort and belonging, similar to that of returning to the pacific ocean after being away for periods at a time. Getting back to the water was something she did to reset herself every time she came back to Hawaiʻi to visit her family. Completing most of her general surgery residency training at the University of Southern California while her husband lived and worked on Oʻahu was challenging, especially when her daughter was born. But they say home is where the heart is and although she spent a lot of time on the continent, her heart stayed in Hawaiʻi.
“My husband taught me to surf, so Diamond Head is one of my favorite spots in the whole world. Whenever I had time off I would always come back to Hawaiʻi and being able to surf Diamond Head, I felt like I got back to baseline,” Taitano said. “It was my moment to remember who I was and what I set out to do– I got a sense of rejuvenation.”
The long term goal was always to return to practice in Hawaiʻi, in a rural community, where she could raise her family. After completing a surgical critical care residency training at the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) as well as a colorectal fellowship in Columbus, Ohio, Taitano now calls Hawaiʻi Island home, where she is primarily employed by Alii Health, a nonprofit healthcare organization whose mission is to provide the best possible care for the West Hawaiʻi community in collaboration and support of Kona Community Hospital.
“It’s a relief to be here. I feel a strong sense of place, there’s space to breathe. I love my partners. I love the hospital. I feel like there’s a sense of family at the hospital. And then when I saw that I got the HELP Scholarship, I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s too good– too good to be true,’” Taitano said.
In the early morning, a few days before Christmas, Taitano opened up her email to see that she was accepted into the new Hawaiʻi Health Education Loan Repayment Program (HELP) and her eyes welled up with tears.
“I emailed back immediately: Such wonderful news! The best Christmas present! Mahalo! Si Yu’us Ma’ase!” said Taitano. “It’s so surreal because amazing things are happening now– At first, when I was looking to return to Hawaiʻi, I was nervous about not being able to come back.”
In a press conference at the Governor’s Office on Dec. 22, 2023, Dr. Lee Buenconsejo-Lum, interim dean of the UH medical school reported that she and HELP Director Dr. Kelley Withy received an overwhelming flood of thank you emails after delivering the news.
“Tears of joy,” Buenconsejo-Lum said. “Even from some of our own JABSOM graduates, born and raised here (in Hawaiʻi), dedicated to serving the community, some of them had thoughts of leaving because they just could not afford to practice here and so these loan repayment amounts, while it doesn’t completely wipe out their debt, is a huge, a huge sigh of relief.”
HELP has successfully alleviated the educational debt of 492 healthcare professionals in its inaugural round. This initiative, developed collaboratively by the Governor’s Office, the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), the Healthcare Association of Hawaiʻi (HAH), State Department of Health and others, addresses shortages by retaining and recruiting healthcare practitioners. The 2023 Hawaiʻi State Legislature allocated an unprecedented $30 million over two years for educational loan repayment. Philanthropic support from Marc and Lynne Benioff, totaling $5 million over two years, targets health professionals on Hawaiʻi Island. Find out more information on the Hawaiʻi HELP website.
In sheer coincidence, Hawaiʻi Governor Josh Green, MD, said that after thirty years, he finally paid off the last of his estimated $75,000 of undergraduate school debt on the same day as the press conference.
“I’m debt-free today and soon, another 500 healthcare providers will be, though separate roads to that,” said Green.
As Taitano enters a new chapter of her life, having completed graduate medical education training, she is excited to be on Hawaiʻi Island to establish roots in a place where she and her husband can raise their daughter near other family members. Grateful to work with a supportive team to deliver healthcare to a rural community, Taitano feels like her life has really come full-circle.
The Chamorro physician grew up in the remote island of Rota, the southernmost of the Northern Mariana Islands, where there was no full-time health-care provider. Instead, she witnessed a revolving door of locum tenens come through.
“Oftentimes we'd have to fly either to Guam, which had its own limitations, or we would fly to Hawaiʻi or the mainland for care,” Taitano said. That’s one of the reasons she went into medicine. She spent a lot of her youth volunteering in the hospitals and shadowing her aunt, who is a public health nurse.
She pursued her undergraduate degree in biology at UH Mānoa and her master’s in public health at the University of Oregon State Health University. In 2010, Taitano entered the ʻImi Hoʻōla Post-Baccalaureate Program at the UH JABSOM and the rest was history.
“I truly believe that if it wasnʻt for ʻImi Hoʻōla, I don’t think I would have ever been a doctor,” said Taitano, who even named her daughter after Dr. Winona Lee, the director of ʻImi Hoʻōla. “She’s my daughter’s namesake, this is how much ʻImi Hoʻōla means to me.”
Each year, 12 candidates from challenging socio-economic backgrounds undergo a yearlong “medical school boot camp” called ʻImi Hoʻōla. Upon successful completion of the program, the graduates matriculate into JABSOM as first-year medical students.
Taitano is grateful to have received her medical education at JABSOM and even more grateful for the help that HELP has provided.
“HELP provides an opportunity to be awarded for the choices I’ve made in my life,” Taitano said. “The journey to becoming a physician was a long and challenging one with a lot of sacrifices made along the way, a journey that took nearly two decades. HELP is not only a financial award, but it’s validating in and of itself. So many of my colleagues have made sacrifices in their personal lives for their training and in their dedication to patient care. I think they are all deserving of such an award.”