Hospital unit renamed for influential doctor

Posted: Friday, July 30, 2010

At a crowded ceremony Thursday evening, Bartlett Regional Hospital's critical care unit was formally titled the Grace T. and Henry I. Akiyama, M.D. Critical Care Unit, after the doctor who helped pioneer many of the advances that formed it.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Akiyama was a cardiologist and internist at Bartlett for more than 40 years. At the dedication, his colleagues described how his passion for both the Juneau community and medical advances made him a leader at the hospital who could not be forgotten.

Those that spoke at the ceremony had worked with the doctor and had felt his influence firsthand. They all agreed that such a dedication was the best way to honor his work.

His former colleague, Bob Urata of Valley Medical Care, said naming the unit in his honor was "not only fitting but the right thing to do."

"I feel very happy that the hospital has done the right thing," said Bill Palmer, a general surgeon at Bartlett.

"New people in this community have come to understand this was a transformative individual," he added.

Bartlett's community relations director Jim Strader said it's an uncommon thing for the hospital to name parts of the building after people and that it's only been done once before for former CEO Robert Valliant.

"You really have to have an outstanding person for the board to do that," he said.

Urata spoke about how Akiyama started a mobile critical care unit for Juneau after being inspired by a similar one in Seattle. This was during a time when such mobile units were not present in Alaska, and it became a model for the state.

Urata also talked about how he started medical care units for patients traveling by air.

He said this was in the man's comprehensive nature for patient care, as he often traveled with his patients to Anchorage or Seattle when they could not be treated properly locally.

He talked about how Akiyama did a lot of work in training nurses to read electrocardiograms and was a big part of additional nursing training that eventually produced an educational department.

"He was a beginning," was how he summed up Akiyama's forward thinking.

Justine Muench, a nurse who worked with Akiyama, agreed. She said he supported nursing as a critical part of health care and promoted their education and supported such training financially.

She said he had a collegial relationship with the nurses, working together on rounds and patient discussions rather than simply handing off the information to him and leaving.

Other speakers included retired fire chief Larry Fanning, as well as Palmer.

Fanning said the doctor believed in bringing advanced life support systems to patients, and believed non-physicians could save lives as well. He said this is what led him to push the use of mobile care units on the ground and air and to push the use of defibrillators at a time when they were less common.

He said his love of his patients made him "always on call."

"He left his clinic, he left his warm bed," Fanning said of his friend's dedication to help people at any time of day, even during a time when transportation was more limited than it is now.

Palmer said Akiyama came up with many ways to care for people in the field that were "remarkable."

He developed advances in cardiovascular medicine and training and always went the extra mile to provide help, such as personally attending to every cardiac arrest in Juneau between 1969 and 1982. He even went on helicopter and fixed-wing rescue missions.

Palmer said the doctor's advances and dedication have led to methods that are still used to treat patients today.

"God knows Henry Akiyama gave this community time," Palmer said.

It was Palmer's idea to rename the critical care unit for Akiyama. He approached the board shortly after Akiyama's death on April 9 about the idea, and they agreed.

Among the crowd of hospital personnel and special guests were Akiyama's children, Lisa and Alana Akiyama.

"The Juneau community was so important to him. To be honored for his life is something he would have appreciated. It's an honor to see his community giving to him because he really cared about the people here," his daughter said.

Alan Akiyama also said his father felt blessed to work and live in Juneau.

"He loved people. He loved the outdoors. He got used to the rain. He really loved taking care of the people here," he said. "He felt supported and wanted to return that support."

He added it was a nice gesture to name the critical care unit for both of his parents and was only sorry his father could not be there in person to see it.

Akiyama was born on April 29, 1927 in Hood River, Ore. After an eventful childhood that included time in internment camps for Japanese families during World War II, he served in the Army from 1945-1948.

He attended Reed College and then the University of Oregon Medical School. He moved to Juneau in 1961 to practice medicine.

•Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276.

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