Doctor honored for decades of dedication

Posted: Friday, May 06, 2005

Although Henry Akiyama retired in October after 43 years of medical practice, his fellow professionals haven't forgotten him.

Within the month Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle will award him the Outstanding Community Physician Award for his contributions to Juneau. Akiyama, 78, is the first recipient of the award.

Douglas Backous, medical director of the regional clinician program at Virginia Mason, said Akiyama developed a longtime professional relationship with the center during the past 40 years.

Because of proximity, Akiyama referred his patients to Swedish Medical Center, Virginia Mason Medical Center and University of Washington Hospital when his patients needed to see specialists.

"His availability to his patients in Juneau was amazing," Backous said. "He came down to Virginia Mason to receive patients that he couldn't take care of in Juneau. When they returned, they were treated professionally at home because of his careful follow-up."

Backous said the partnership with Virginia Mason led to great patient care for people living in Southeast Alaska.

Akiyama said he is grateful for the center's support, trust and confidence in him. "I feel very humble about that," said the doctor of internal medicine and cardiology.

Akiyama said he became a doctor because of his experience at American internment camps during World War II and his 18-month military service in Italy.

Akiyama's father came from Japan to Oregon to work on the railroads. He later owned a homestead fruit orchard. When World War II broke out, three of Akiyama's brothers were serving in the U.S. Army, but that didn't stop the government from sending Akiyama, his sister and mother to an internment camp. His father was placed in a special camp because he was a leader of a local Japanese Methodist church.

The family was separated for three years.

"As a young boy, I felt humiliated, ashamed and very frightened," Akiyama said. He was 14 years old when he was moved to internment camps in California and Idaho. "It was a grave injustice and a breach of the Bills of Rights."

To prove his loyalty to the United States, where he was born and raised, Akiyama joined the 442nd Infantry. The unit, which was composed of all Japanese-American volunteers, fought in the Italian campaign and was highly decorated.

While he was serving in Italy, Akiyama was shocked to see the devastation and human suffering a war could cause. When he returned, he decided to do something that could be of service to people. His adviser in college suggested that he consider becoming a doctor.

Akiyama became one and was recruited to Juneau in 1961. Here he trained emergency medical technicians. Before Juneau had an air ambulance station, he accompanied patients to Seattle. He also went to 25 helicopter and fixed-wing rescue missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Akiyama said he stayed in Juneau because he felt that he could better serve people in a small community. He decided to retire after a heart attack last May.

By the time Akiyama closed his practice, he had more than 5,000 patients.

"It's been a difficult retiring process," Akiyama said in his almost empty office. "I tried so hard to find a replacement but was not successful. You have to find a special type of person willing to come to a rural area."

Akiyama said he misses most the challenges of diagnosing patients and interacting with them. He said he also misses the excitement of participating in the phenomenal advances in medicine.

"I never thought I'd be in medicine this long," said Akiyama, who calls medicine his mistress. "But it is a truism that all good things must come to an end. It's better late than never to retire."

Akiyama now calls himself a Japanese gardener. Although he puts has put his clinic up for sale, he still works on the garden in front of his clinic. Tulips and rhododendrons are blooming in his garden, making him think of his late wife, Grace, he said. She died of cancer nine years ago.

"Spring is such a wonderful time, a rebirth of the earth," Akiyama said. "There are also some sentiments and attachments to my wife. We started the garden and worked on it together."

• I-Chun Che can be reached at

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