Supporters lobby for bill that would help Hilo hospital treat heart attacks

  • JEFF HANSEL/Tribune-Herald

    Chrystal Etrata, clinical coordinator in the Progressive Care Unit, and Kelly Okada, nurse manager, will care for patients after stents get placed if the bill passes. Okada had pages of testimony given to her by hospital staff for submission to the Legislature.

  • Dr. David Griffin observes a diagnostic cardiac catheterization at Hilo Medical Center. If passed, new legislation will help the hospital start placing stents to open blocked arteries. Local treatment will save patients $30,000 or more in emergency flight costs.

    JEFF HANSEL/Tribune-Herald

Proponents are waging a last-minute crusade to flood the Legislature with testimony in support of funding for a cardiac care unit at Hilo Medical Center.

Senate Bill 1235 calls for a $2 million appropriation to recruit two more cardiologists to the hospital, hire support staff, buy equipment and train staff.

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Sen. Kai Kahele, who introduced the bill, shared his own personal experience regarding cardiac care during a telephone interview.

He said he took his father, the late Sen. Gil Kahele, to the Hilo Medical Center ER when he had a heart attack.

An emergency air ambulance was used to fly him to Oahu for treatment. But damage to his dad’s heart muscle was so extensive that, by then, placing a stent to open his artery would not help.

Gil Kahele remained hospitalized on Oahu, experienced additional heart trouble and did not survive.

Kai Kahele, D-Hilo, said he spoke at the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk last year and told participants his top reason for accepting appointment as senator was so he could bring a cardiac care unit, with the ability to place stents, to Hilo.

The hospital does perform diagnostic heart catheterizations, which is when a tube is inserted into the heart through a vein or artery to look inside and diagnosis people who need a stent to open a blocked artery. But the hospital can’t currently place a stent.

Kahele, and dozens of hospital workers who have written in support of the bill, hope that will soon change.

Kahele said the cardiac care unit will “without a doubt” save many lives and thousands of dollars for patients, who will no longer need emergency flights that can cost more than $30,000.

By the time a patient gets assessed and flown to Oahu from Hilo, “oftentimes much more than two hours has elapsed, increasing the risk that the patient may not fully recover,” the bill says.

Dr. David Griffin, the hospital’s cardiologist, said patients have limited time to get a stent placed and avoid complications.

“Within 90 minutes is the key,” he said. “And, essentially, nobody makes it within that 90 minutes from here to Honolulu.”

Hilo Medical Center handles at least 100 heart attacks yearly, Griffin said, and sends between 230 and 300 patients by air to get stents placed.

“That’s close to 400 people that get shipped off island,” he said. “There’s a huge unserved need here.”

Dr. Jerry Gray, recently retired from the ER, said clot-busting drugs given before the patient is sent via air ambulance only work about 60 percent of the time.

When he joined the medical center board, he did so with the provision that opening a cardiac care unit with the ability to place stents was to be a top priority.

Half of the hospital’s patients are on Medicare or Medicaid, Gray said, making it financially impossible to start stent services without state financial help.

Also, he said, new, highly skilled cardiologists can’t be recruited to Hawaii Island “unless we have this capability.”

The Hilo Medical Center Foundation sent an email Monday morning to stakeholders, stating that on Wednesday, the Ways and Means Committee has a hearing about Kahele’s bill at 10:30 a.m.

Lisa Rantz, executive director of the Hilo Medical Center Foundation, said stakeholders will forward the email to their partners, “hopefully blanketing our region with outreach.”

Testimony on SB 1235 must be received by 10:30 a.m. today, the day before the hearing (WAMtestimony@capitol.hawaii.gov).

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If the bill passes and becomes law, it will take effect July 1, with hospital officials hoping to start the service by the end of the year.

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.