Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, August 16, 2001

One man’s spirit

Big Island hospital names its
cancer treatment room for a
man who was a friend to all

By Dave Donnelly

A NEW SIGN is going up tomorrow in the North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea. It will read, "Michael R. Sweetow Oncology Treatment Room." Those who through fate or circumstances must enter this room, as cancer patients must, should know a little about the man for whom the room is being dedicated during ceremonies tomorrow.

Mike Sweetow was a longtime friend of mine, dating back some 25 years or so when he was involved in labor relations on behalf of the Hawaii Employers Council. He later was offered and accepted a job with the Crowley Corp. to represent them in waterfront disputes in San Francisco.

I always got together with Mike in those days, but Crowley appeared unhappy that he understood the union workers and sought compromise with them instead of taking the tough stance the company wanted.

The upshot was that he left Crowley, and throughout the rest of his San Francisco days found a new career as a mediator, earning the respect of companies and unions alike.

IT WAS ON Aug. 14, 1994, that his life changed when he was diagnosed with cancer and given anywhere from a month to -- an outside shot at -- two years to live.

The Imaging Pavilion at North Hawaii Community Hospital offers
peaceful scenes to patients entering the magnetic resonance
imagery scanner. Michael Sweetow appreciated the holistic
approach of the health center’s founder.

He scarcely had time for the shock of the "Big C" to set in when word reached him that I had my own brush with death two days later, ending up with two liver operations and a TIPS procedure in which a plastic shunt was inserted in the liver to facilitate blood flow.

Picture this: The man whose name now is engraved on the Oncology Room door of the North Hawaii hospital put aside the personal diagnosis he knew would prove fatal, and set about to call me at Kaiser Hospital and send flowers, including one huge bouquet a nurse told me was the largest ever sent there.

Phone calls and get-well notes started coming in immediately from friends in the Bay area, thanks to Mike spreading the word. I didn't know at the time that the doctors had told friends here, who passed the word on to Sweetow, that I had perhaps 48 hours to live.

But I pulled through, as Mike told me later he knew I would ("Only the good die young") and it wasn't until weeks later, after I'd returned to writing my column, that he shared with me his own diagnosis.

That's the kind of person whose name now graces the Oncology Treatment Room door.

It was Mike's widow, Beth -- well aware of her husband's love of Hawaii and admiration for the hospital's founder and plastic heart transplant inventor Dr. Earl Bakken -- who recently made a contribution of $45,000 to the facility. The hospital administrators decided it would be appropriate to name the treatment center for Michael R. Sweetow.

THE SWEETOWS had made many trips to the Big Island, and during his treatment, Mike found particular peace and solace in Waipio, just down the road a bit from the hospital.

He told Beth that it was in Waipio that he wanted his ashes scattered, and in January, his widow, her late husband's oldest son, Scott, and I drove into the valley, held a brief ceremony led by a Hawaiian kahu, and fulfilled Mike's final wishes.

One thing Mike liked about Dr. Bakken and his remarkable facility was the fact that while traditional cancer treatment was practiced, so too were alternative and holistic medicine.

Each year after his diagnosis Mike would write his team of doctors, both in San Francisco and in Pennsylvania, where the Sweetows ultimately moved to be closer to Beth's family.

On the list were several MDs, but also a Ph.D., a Physician of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a Jin Shin Jyutsu specialist and even a massage therapist. He sought help where he felt he might find it.

At the end of each of these annual missives, he'd copy me as "co-celebrant of a four-year (or five-year or six-year) life-threatening event.

Beth Sweetow wrote this year's message to the "Mike Sweetow Team," mailed yesterday. She invited them all, writing, "if you are ever on the Big Island, please take the time to drive to Kamuela and visit the wonderful hospital."

SHE ADDED: "While it is dedicated in his memory, it is also in tribute to all of you for your role in his life with cancer and COPD." That is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the final ailment he was to face in life that caused an oxygen container to be his constant companion and prevented him from any further visits to his beloved Hawaii. Save his last one.

I'll be at tomorrow's ceremony to be sure, but last weekend I took in the concert of the 15-year old Welsh singer, Charlotte Church, whose album, "Voice of an Angel," put her on the musical map. I couldn't help but think of Mike and tomorrow's ceremony, particularly during the final two numbers before encores brought her back.

The first was "Bali Ha'i" from "South Pacific." Church movingly sang the concluding lines:

"If you try, you'll find me,
"Where the sky meets the sea,
"Here am I, your special island,
"Come to me ... Come to me."

Waipio was Mike's Bali Ha'i.

The last song the teenager had programmed should be sung by someone with lots more experience than her, she stated, "but I'll do my best."

She then sang, with great feeling, Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

All who enter the door of the Michael R. Sweetow Oncology Treatment Room will have begun that journey.

As they move inexorably over that bridge, may they be as fortunate as I'm sure the room's namesake has been -- when they reach the end, may they hear the voice of an angel.

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