Beloved doctor to thousands closes clinic after 43 years

Heart attack in May is among the reasons Dr. Akiyama is choosing to retire

Posted: Friday, September 03, 2004

Dr. Henry Akiyama, who championed heart care in Juneau for years and amassed a patient list of thousands, will retire Oct. 15.

"For 43 years, medicine has been my life, and I feel deeply privileged and honored to have served the people in this community," Akiyama said Thursday.

Akiyama, a doctor of internal medicine and cardiology, said he has wanted to retire for about five years. He could not find anyone meeting his standards to take over his practice.

His heart attack in May was a major factor in the decision to close his office at 1420 Glacier Ave. Already, he had reduced his hours to part-time, he said.

"It's a wake-up call to me that you don't need to have any risk factors and can still have a heart attack," the 77-year-old doctor said.

Akiyama's 10 staffers all have jobs in other medical offices, he said. The other doctors in his office will continue to practice in Juneau, except Dr. Carolyn Brown, who heads to a Kenya hospital this month, he said.

Akiyama plans to send letters to his clinic's more than 5,000 patients telling them how to go about choosing another physician and obtaining copies of medical records.

Akiyama began practicing as a doctor in Juneau in 1961, when four medical doctors were in town. He said he is most proud of helping build the medical community to more than 50 doctors today.

"This group had the dream and vision to develop the quality of medical services that are in Juneau," he said.

In the early 1970s, Akiyama was instrumental in developing pre-hospital care by training emergency medical technicians in the field, said Larry Fanning, former Juneau fire chief.

"The doctor was so kind that he said, 'Whenever you have a cardiac call, call me and I'll come to the scene,'" Fanning said.

Some patients said they are grateful for his care over many years.

State Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, remembers being near death at age 14 when she developed a severe case of mononucleosis and a staph infection in her throat. Akiyama admitted her to St. Ann's Hospital, where he developed a coronary care concept that was later turned into a unit at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Kerttula preferred her own food over the hospital's. She remembers the doctor eating some of her strawberries, a clever move that got Kerttula's attention and distracted her from the illness.

Later, Akiyama saved Kerttula's mother, Joyce, from breast cancer. He had brought a mammography machine to Juneau and detected the cancer at a very early stage. Twenty years later, Kerttula's mother is well.

"Because of him, my whole family has been able to have better lives," Kerttula said.

Akiyama saved Rick Lauber's life twice. One Sunday in November 2001, Lauber wasn't feeling well. He went to Bartlett Regional Hospital, where doctors found nothing wrong. The next morning he went to see Akiyama, whose medical equipment said Lauber was fine. But the doctor's experience told him Lauber was going to have a heart attack. He sent him to Bartlett, where he did have a heart attack.

"He only has one drawback, and that's he's a New York Yankees fan," Lauber said. "Other than that he's perfect."

Another time, Akiyama spotted a tiny mole on Lauber's left ear lobe and became suspicious. It turned out to be melanoma - a potentially deadly malignant tumor.

In 1997, a videographer was making a video memorial to Akiyama's wife, Grace. She had died of cancer the year before. The man's dog, accidentally left in the car, turned blue. Akiyama resuscitated the animal.

While medical equipment is important, some young doctors rely too much on studies and equipment rather than their own eyes and ears, Akiyama said.

"We have to sharpen our clinical technique," he said.

Rosemary Gute-Gruening, a nurse who worked with Akiyama for about 15 years, remembers how he taught clinical skills to the staff.

"He had a core philosophy - listen to the patients because they will teach you more than you need to know," Gute-Gruening said.

His staff worried about him when a patient died, because he took it so hard.

"As a physician, you care more about the ones you lost than the ones you saved," Akiyama said.

Although retired, Akiyama's instincts will kick into gear if he sees another medical emergency.

"I'll be right there," he said.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at tara.sidor@juneauempire.com.



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