health care heroes of the lahaina wildfires

Michelle Liu
Courtney Takabayashi
December 26, 2023
lifestyle

When disaster strikes, there are those who rush to the aid of others. Here are stories of three health care heroes who mobilized their teams, gathered resources, and saved countless lives during the Maui wildfires.

A pharmacy on the frontline
Finding joy and fulfillment in the service of others are two reasons Cory Lehano chose health care as a career. After earning his doctorate in pharmacy, Lehano, who was born and raised on Oahu, moved to Maui. In 2018, he opened Mauliola Pharmacy in Kahului. “I’ve always gravitated toward roles where I can work directly with my patients,” he says. “Serving the community and helping people is what Mauliola Pharmacy is all about.”


Mauliola Pharmacy provided service with a smile in Lahaina. Photo courtesy Mauliola Pharmacy.

In the early morning of Aug. 9, Lehano and his team mobilized quickly to help their community. “We met at the pharmacy and packed up our supplies,” he says. “We took everything to the shelter.” They distributed hundreds of hygiene kits and provided wound care and first-aid supplies.

At the shelter, the team quickly discovered that the greatest need was for medication. “There were people who needed their medication right away,” Lehano says. “So we worked with health care organizations to provide prescriptions, coordinated between our two locations to fill the prescriptions, and ultimately delivered the medications as quickly as possible.”

Lehano used his moped to deliver to difficult-to-reach areas. “Our customers, our community, they’re everything,” he says.

Prioritizing medical care
Malama I Ke Ola Health Center lost its Lahaina clinic in the fires, but that didn’t stop them from helping people. The center was the first health system to set up a coordinated medical station at the War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku and Maui High School in Kahului, working alongside Mauliola Pharmacy.


Adult Medicine and Pediatric staff of Malama Ke Ola worked in the War Memorial Tent. Photo courtesy Malama Ke Ola. 

“What we saw in those initial days was burn and smoke inhalation care,” says Malama I Ke Ola CEO John Vaz, M.D., MSHA. “We also saw a lot of chronic conditions flaring up, especially in older adults who had been without their medication for 48 hours. Returning them to baseline was critical.”

In the following weeks, Malama I Ke Ola shifted its focus to reopening its clinic inside the Lahaina Comprehensive Health Center with the help of its community partners. Their network with Hui No Ke Ola Pono, Mauliola Pharmacy, the certified community behavioral health clinic, and the Department of Health Public Health nurses allowed them to treat people for chronic conditions, urgent issues like infections, and mental health concerns.


Malama I Ke Ola Health Center and Waiaae Coast Comprehensive Health Center employees staffing Lahaina Comprehensive Health Center. Photo courtesy Malama Ke Ola.

“Reopening Lahaina Comprehensive Health Center would have been slow and difficult alone,” says Dr. Vaz. “We made it happen together within the first weekend after the fire.”

People also needed help navigating life, not just health; they looked for guidance regarding finances, housing, and employment. Through it all, Malama I Ke Ola made sure that the patients came first.

“None of the care we’ve done has been billed because that wasn’t our focus,” says Dr. Vaz. “We were guided by our Community First Always principle. That’s our focus. I know our staff wouldn’t be doing anything else because this is what being a community health center is all about.”

Organizing chaos
Wesley Lo was on the frontline the day after the deadly fires began. The CEO of Ohana Pacific Health knew that he and his team had to get organized quickly to care for survivors. “We started calling the county. We put together a team of volunteers from our staff. Everyone wanted to help. Everyone wanted to do something,” he says.


Hale Makua's team of nurses, kitchen staff, a physician, a pharmacist, a social worker, and others banded together to provide aid to those on the west side.Photo courtesy Hale Makua.

He and his team were some of the first people on the ground to provide basic first aid. They also drove their vans into Lahaina to transport people out of the burn zone to safety.

Providers impacted by the fires were also on the frontline. A nurse who was forced to evacuate didn’t hesitate to help. A pharmacist who lost his home was in the burn zone dispensing medications to survivors.

“Health care workers are grown from a different heart. They’re special people,” says Lo. “They’re going to help anyone who needs help no matter what.”

In the following weeks, Lo helped manage the chaos by organizing meetings between health care organizations. It helped everyone get on the same page. “All competition was set aside and the focus was on the patients,” says Lo. “Everyone used the resources they had. It was a symphony of everyone working well together.”

Lo warns that the recovery is just beginning. Survivors got the medical care they needed, but many didn’t have a home to return to.

“A lot of supports were gone. We’re in it for the long haul and we need to make sure we sustain our efforts,” says Lo. “This is our community, our island, and our home.”

'Hero and thumb photos courtesy Mauliola Pharmacy.

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