CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dr. Judy Placek, left, visits burn patient Troy Pace at the burn unit at Straub Clinic & Hospital in Honolulu. Pace was burned severely while trying to rescue a man trapped in his vehicle after a power line fell upon it. Also pictured are Imelda Albano and Maren Chun.
Straub’s burn unit gets a financial boost
Troy Pace, recovering from severe burns at Straub Clinic & Hospital, can't imagine having to fly to the mainland for treatment.
"It would have been awful," said the 39-year-old man, described as a "hero" after trying to save a man in a parked minivan that caught fire from a fallen power line in Whitmore Village on Nov. 28.
"I would be pretty bad when I got there," he said from his bed in Straub's burn unit.
He was the only patient there during a recent tour of the three-bed facility, founded in 1983 by Dr. James Penoff, a plastic surgeon. It is the only burn unit in Hawaii.
"Without this," Penoff said, "patients would have to go to the mainland and care of burn takes two to four or five weeks with dislodgment from the family structure for a prolonged period."
It was also very difficult for critically burned patients to fly to the mainland before the unit was available, he said, requiring six to eight seats for the patient and medical attendants or an air ambulance at an exorbitant cost.
Maintaining the unit is a challenge, however, because insurance reimbursements are low and burns have decreased in the past two years due to public awareness and better flame retardant apparel, he said. The patient population at Straub has declined from about 50 per year to 25 to 40.
So while the good news is that bad burn cases are down, the lower demand makes burn units like Straub's less cost effective, leading many to shut down. That's bad news for the remaining few patients who do have burns.
"Units are closing across the nation," Penoff said; about 100 are left.
At Straub, he said, a key question has been: "Can we afford it? We went into the red and we chose to write that off because we think it is an important service to the community."
But if reimbursements continue to fall, he said, "we will have to relook at it because burns have gone down. We are not a huge state. We have to make an extra effort to maintain quality of care."
That effort will be helped thanks to a recent $400,000 endowment for training and education from Chia-Ling Chang, a friend and patient of Penoff.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chia-Ling Chang, right, shakes hands with Placek. Chang donated $400,000 to the burn unit at Straub. The number of burn units have decreased nationwide due to the high costs to maintain the facilities along with a drop in patients due to better burn prevention education.
"Dr. Penoff is a gift," she said, adding that she wanted "to give him the kind of recognition he deserves."
She was at the burn unit recently to see Penoff and meet Judy Placek, a nurse practitioner in plastic and burn surgery at the Nebraska Medical Center and Clarkson Hospital in Omaha.
Chang's endowment enabled Straub to bring Placek here for a week for training of burn unit nurses and others involved with burn patients in the emergency room and Intensive Care Unit.
Placek said Donna Gabriel, manager of the burn unit, was concerned that it may not be up to par with mainland units. But she said it is a model for holistic, multidisciplinary care.
"He's very fortunate to come to Straub," she said after examining Pace and the burn unit.
A few days earlier, Pace had received skin grafts on both hands and on his left leg. "I'll be leaving here with new skin," he joked.
Pace had been riding by on his bicycle when he saw the minivan on fire and tried to open the driver's door. The occupant, Eugenio Fernandez, 66, of Wahiawa, was taken to Straub, where he died of smoke inhalation and burns.
About 800 patients have received care in the burn unit since it was established.
Straub donor is happy to help
Chia-Ling Chang, who recently gave Straub Clinic & Hospital's burn unit a $400,000 endowment to honor Dr. James Penoff, said she wanted to bridge a relationship with her cousins in China.
Her cousins were educated on the mainland and went back to China and used their skills to improve medicine, she said.
"I am so happy I made my share (to help medicine here)," she said after making the endowment.
Chang was born in Shanghai and went to missionary school. She earned a scholarship at Smith College in Massachusetts, went to graduate school at Oxford and began a career as an educator.
She taught at the University of California-Los Angeles Lab School, then moved to Hawaii to teach at the University of Hawaii Lab School. She ran a program on the Waianae Coast for 17 years teaching Hawaiian children to read and write.
She has supported the Summer Student Research Program to help others advance their education.
"I want my legacy to be that I'm part of a big change in education for the people of Hawaii," she told Straub.