COURTESY QUEEN'S MEDICAL CENTER
The first open heart surgery in Hawaii, shown above, was performed at Queen's in 1959. Dr. Richard Mamiya later expanded on that work, performing the first isle heart bypass in 1970.
Legacy of retired Queen’s
surgeon lives on in
the hearts of patients
Dr. Richard Mamiya still keeps
in touch with those he helped
His name is synonymous with heart surgery in Hawaii and appears on all sorts of other things, such as a special yellow hibiscus, a golf tournament, a theater and a Medical Library heritage center.
But if he'd followed many of his athletic friends, he might have been a beach boy, recalled Dr. Richard Mamiya, 79, internationally noted cardiac surgeon and philanthropist.
"I used to hang around Kuhio Beach all the time," he said in an interview. "I wonder what would have happened if I had followed that line?"
CRAIG T. KOJIMA/CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Richard Mamiya: Feels his best work was repairing congenital heart defects in children
Instead, he said: "My life has been a series of serendipity. I came from the most depressed background. Things fell in line for me."
The prominent thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon retired in 1995 after more than 10,000 heart surgeries and more than 20,000 other types of operations.
He still goes to his office in the Queen's Physician Building where he shares a long working relationship and love of gardening with his secretary, Eileen Makaea, and keeps in touch with thousands of his international patients.
Makaea joined Queen's as head of the cardiac unit in 1959, the year Dr. Scott Brainard, then of the Honolulu Medical Group, performed the first open heart surgery in Hawaii at Queen's. Mamiya did the first heart bypass in 1970.
In 1977, Makaea joined Mamiya's staff for a breathtaking surgical schedule, taking the team to Kaiser, Tripler, Straub and Queen's hospitals. St. Francis and Kuakini sent cases to him at Queen's.
"At one time we were running around like crazy," Mamiya said, explaining Makaea would drive him to hospitals "with a sandwich in the car." They did three open heart surgeries a day and once did seven, all at different hospitals. "Looking back at the work we did, we can't figure out how we did it," he said.
Learning shortcuts, he was able to do bypasses in two hours, half the time of conventional procedures, he said.
Mamiya said he did not set out to be a doctor and did not even think of going to college because he was from a depressed background in Kalihi and Palama Settlement.
But teachers encouraged him because of good grades, and athletic scholarships in football, baseball and basketball carried him through St. Louis School, the University of Hawaii and St. Louis University Medical School in Missouri.
He said his one distinction as a quarterback was a single-game passing record unbroken for 36 years. He was the first inductee into the UH Sports Hall of Honor.
After taking a zoology course as a university sophomore, he said his teacher and department chair told him he should go into medicine, specifically surgery.
"I had dissected a dogfish shark," he said. "I think they saw something in that."
He borrowed money after graduating, married and finished training with his wife working as a social worker. He said he was a general surgeon but did so much cardiac surgery in St. Louis that the accrediting board allowed him to take the cardiac examination.
However, he worked in general surgery for six or seven years after returning to Hawaii with his family, now including eight children and seven grandchildren.
"My career is kind of a mishmash," he said. "It wasn't conventional in the way of formal training. At times I went through the back door and side door."
He helped to plan the University of Hawaii medical school, becoming chief of surgery, and gave it up after nine years to practice cardiac surgery.
It was such a rapidly developing field that "you had license to do something (different) if it didn't get you in trouble," he said. His techniques drew national attention.
E.J. (Ellen Jane) Murakami, in cardiac surgery for 43 years as coordinator for the surgery schedule and scrub nurse at Queen's, said Mamiya is "a superman. Everyone said if you're in a difficult situation, you want him there. He was creative. He could figure out the best way to do something."
Mamiya said his best work was repairing congenital heart defects in children, performing 60 to 70 such procedures a year. "It is much more creative and more technically challenging than coronary bypass," he said.
He described a 2-week-old boy whose heart was completely turned around. Two procedures were usually done to fix the problem, with the second at age 4 or 5 and the child not living long, he said. He adopted an Argentine doctor's technique and corrected the heart in one operation.
His patient is now about 30 years old, weighs about 300 pounds and can bench-press 400 pounds. Mamiya said, "Easily, he's the world's longest survivor from a heart transposition, I think."
In the case of a child with a big hole in her heart, he said some air was trapped in her head after surgery, and she was unconscious. Her neurologist said she had irreversible brain damage, but Mamiya stayed with her four days and three nights. He said the girl "woke up one day" and "walked out of the hospital."
He said his philosophy is the same for surgery, athletics or his hobby of woodworking: "You want to create something faster, better." While today's robotic bypass surgery might be effective, he said, "It accommodates nontalented surgeons, hackers. Robots can take care of them, but to me you lose the artist."
BACK TO TOP
operational and cardiac
The Queen's Medical Center will celebrate its 145th anniversary and 45th year of cardiac care with "Heritage Day" ceremonies and entertainment tomorrow.
The hospital opened with 18 beds in 1859 and has 505 beds today.
A 14-member team performed the first open heart procedure here on Dec. 2, 1959. The first patient was Harumi Yoshimoto, 36, of Hilo.
Improvements over the years ranged from the first coronary care unit in 1968 to a $13 million, technologically advanced Cardiac Comprehensive Care unit that opened this year.
The medical center has a list of many Hawaii "firsts" in technological equipment and techniques.
"Technology has helped us enormously," said Dr. Robert Hong, Queen's chief of cardiovascular diseases. But he stressed the importance of "addressing the whole patient and their needs and desires."
Tomorrow's celebration will begin with a dedication ceremony at 8 a.m. at the Royal Mausoleum.
An opening ceremony will be at 9:45 a.m. in Queen's Harkness Courtyard, followed by entertainment and a craft fair until 2 p.m.