Tahiti – Hawaii 2000
By Sam Low
Among those called to medicine, it is probably accurate to say that the innermost sanctum of practice is the operating room of a major hospital. A hospital like The Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu, Hawai’i’s largest, where Kau`i Pelekane has been a surgical nurse for the last four years. Her ascent to this extremely demanding position has not been easy – calling for a complex juggling act in which the needs of a career had to be matched always against those of her two children, Ikaika and Kaimipono, now thirteen and eleven years old.
Kau`i was born in Long Beach, California on January 24, 1965, but was raised in Kailua-Kona by her parents Mike and Monique Pelekane. In 1983 Kau`i graduated from Konawaena high school and enrolled in nursing school at the University of Hawai`i, which she attended for a year before taking time off to marry Tim Mencastre (they are now divorced) and begin having children. To support her family, Kau`i worked for a time at a bank.
“Then I began to consider my life and my responsibility to both myself and my kids and I decided that I didn’t want to be a bank teller for the rest of my life,” Kauai says. “When I was in high school I worked in a doctor’s office as a secretary and when the doctor did minor surgery I occasionally was called on to assist him. I found that I liked helping people and I think that’s where I got the idea to become a nurse.”
In 1989, pregnant with her second son, Kau`i returned to nursing school, enrolling in a two-year associate degree program which resulted in her qualification as a registered nurse. For three and a half years she worked in the oncology ward and then learned that Queen’s was opening a six month surgical training program. Only four applicants would be accepted from many candidates.
“I got in the second time I applied,” Kau`i explains, “and now I have been working as a surgical nurse for four years. It’s very intense sometimes,” she adds, “but I really feel that I am helping people.”
Although Kau`i was born on the mainland, she doesn’t remember much about her life there because she was so young when she returned to Hawai`i.
“My family on the Big Island was heavily involved in paddling,” she remembers, “and they started the Kaiopua canoe club in Kona. I have been paddling since I was ten years old. My dad took me fishing and taught me how to pick `opihi. My family had a catering business so I learned how to cook for a luau. In Hawai`i,” she continues, “we had avocado trees and never paid for fish. Vegetables and other fruits came from our neighbors. When I first moved to O`ahu I couldn’t get used to buying fish in the market ” – here Kau`i pauses for a moment to laugh at herself – “and I refused to pay for fish for about a year.”
Today, Kau`i and her two children live in Kailua and she paddles for the Hui Nalu canoe club where she first met Nainoa.
“I have always known about Hokule`a,” she remembers, “but I never dreamed that I would ever sail aboard her. Then, late in 1998, Nainoa asked me if I would be willing to be the medic on board for the last leg of the Rapa Nui voyage. How could I say no? Even though I had big reservations about it – taking on such a large responsibility – I said ‘yes, I’ll go.”
Kau`i was not only concerned about being responsible for the health of the crew during a voyage far from land, she also worried about her two young children. How would they deal with her absence for such a long time and could she endure the separation herself?
“I spent about a year preparing them – maybe I should say preparing us – for the voyage. We talked about how important it was. I told them that I would be safe. They said, ‘Okay.’ Then they asked, ‘How long?’ I told them five weeks.”
Here Kau`i pauses for a moment considering her children, obviously missing them.
“It’s difficult. I know they are being well cared for and I know they understand the meaning of the voyage. They were in the Hawaiian immersion program for a long time and so maybe they even understand it better than I do. But I just can’t help worrying about them.”
To prepare for her anticipated role as both Hokule`a’s only health care provider and as a crew member, Kau`i stepped up her regular regime of paddling and read about the medical problems she was likely to encounter aboard the canoe – heat stroke, dehydration, common illnesses and various psychological issues which she subsumes under the heading of “cabin fever.” She now feels well prepared for any eventuality but, as it turned out, the responsibility of caring for Hokule`a’s crew will not be hers alone. A few months ago, Dr. Ming-Lei Tim Sing also joined the crew.
“That was actually a great relief for me,” Kau`i says. “We make a great team and I’m much more secure now that we can handle any problems we might encounter.”
In January, 1999, Kau`i remembers attending the first meeting for crew members at the Maritime Center.
“Bruce and Chad explained the goals of the voyage and of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and I became even more excited about going. They talked about the opportunity for them to pass on the knowledge they have gained to the next generation of sailors and to do something that our ancestors had done centuries ago. And then I thought about my own children. I realized that I’m not making the voyage just for myself but also for them. When I come home, I will certainly have learned something that I can pass on to them.”