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Alternative Hospital Is Curing Skepticism

Hawaiian center is first in country to integrate western medicine with ancient healing arts.


WAIMEA, Hawaii — When Earl E. Bakken was just a boy, he saw the movie "Frankenstein" at his neighborhood theater in Minneapolis. Far from being scared, he was inspired.

"I was fascinated by the idea of combining electricity with medicine," recalled Bakken, who began tinkering in his basement and went on to invent the first battery-powered, wearable pacemaker. The company he founded, Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc., has helped shape medical technology over the last 50 years.

Now, the 76-year-old engineer again is pioneering a new form of health care. His approach encompasses more than the physical body--"that largely mechanical, chemical, electrical entity in which we live," as he put it.

Cradled here in the remote foothills of the Kohala Mountains on the island of Hawaii, the North Hawaii Community Hospital is the first in the country to integrate the latest in western, technology-based medicine with ancient Hawaiian, Asian and holistic healing arts. The 50-bed acute-care facility opened in 1996 and was ranked first last year by Dallas-based Solution Point, which rates hospitals according to patient satisfaction. It competed with facilities with fewer than 350 beds.

"We offer the best of high-tech and high touch," said Bakken, who just completed his term as president of the hospital board. "We aim to heal the mind, body and spirit."

Along with a CAT scan, for example, a patient here might select healing-touch therapy, which involves "light touch over energy centers of the body in an effort to restore harmony." The hospital has naturopaths, acupuncturists, massage therapists and chiropractors on staff, in addition to a full complement of medical specialists, from cardiologists to gastroenterologists. Its pharmacy stocks herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines alongside its regular drug supply.

"Physicians on the whole are cautious about alternative approaches, but in Hawaii, our population is very accepting and in fact practices alternative medicines," said Stephanie Aveiro, executive director of the Hawaii Medical Assn. "What's happening on the Big Island is probably an indication of the changes to come because patients are becoming much more involved in their health care."

In an era when small, rural hospitals are shutting down and larger ones are struggling, the nonprofit, community-owned hospital is running ahead of budget forecasts--with the help of donors and volunteers. Its latest campaign is to raise funds for a top-of-the-line MRI, a $5-million effort to which Bakken and his wife, Doris, have given $3 million.

Nearly 2,500 feet above the sun-soaked Kohala Coast, Waimea is home to an eclectic mix of Hawaiian ranchers raising cattle and sheep, starry-eyed New Agers and real stargazers. The astronomers of the Keck Observatory have their headquarters here, although their telescopes are in the thin air of Mauna Kea's 13,800-foot summit. The dot-com millionaires also are beginning to discover Waimea, and vacation homes are sprouting on its misty hillsides.

When Bakken retired as Medtronic chairman and moved to Kiholo Bay in 1989, he figured he would spend his days swinging gently in his hammock into the sunset of his life. Soon, however, he was coaxed to join the Waimea community's push to build an acute-care hospital for the 29,000 residents of northwest Hawaii. He urged them to build "not just another hospital," but instead "a new kind of healing center from the ground up."

"Earl galvanized the whole community," said Sharon Sakai, administrative director for the Kona Kohala Resort Assn. "It was amazing to watch him and to watch people respond to him."

The single-story hospital not only brings together a multitude of healing approaches, it was designed with patients' comfort as the priority. Each room opens onto a garden. Skylights bring sunshine into the lobby, hallways and even the operating rooms. Hawaiian art adorns the hallways, and patients can customize their rooms by selecting pieces from the hospital's donated collection. The facility doesn't even smell like a hospital, thanks to its powerful air-filtration system and the hard work of its housekeeping staff.

"Small things like these can make a big difference," Bakken said. "Most hospitals circulate sick air through the building and expect people to get well."

Bakken is hoping that his North Hawaii Community Hospital will attract visitors from around the world. So far, the out-of-town patients mostly have been tourists who broke a bone or ran into some other medical problem. But Bakken is confident that people will opt to come for elective medical procedures, followed by rest and recreation.

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