A 62-year-old Hilo man is suing Hilo Medical Center, claiming a whale tooth necklace passed down in his family for several generations since the days of Kamehameha the Great was improperly removed from him at the facility and not returned after he suffered a stroke.
Hilo attorneys Paul Sulla and Lockey White filed the civil suit on behalf of Alejandro “Alika” Tejada May 9 in Hilo Circuit Court.
The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages and also a restraining order against the facility, claiming Tejada and his wife, Debra, were called liars by HMC and its claims administrator, Department of Accounting and General Services.
The complaint describes the necklace, known as a “niho kohola,” which is made of a sperm whale tooth, is worth more than $100,000. It also describes the necklace, known specifically by the proper name “Kuha‘o,” as “a cultural artifact of great historical and spiritual significance” and “a family artifact that is irreplaceable.”
The filing describes Tejada as “a Native Hawaiian who previously served as pukaua (war chief) for the high chief at Pu‘ukohola Heiau near Kohala.” The filing added Tejada is “currently a kahu (priest) and active practitioner of the Native Hawaiian religion in addition to being a devout Catholic.”
Tejada said Friday he doesn’t use or identify with the term “cultural practitioner.”
“I am my culture,” he explained.
Tejada said he was making dinner on Sept. 28 last year when he suffered the stroke.
“My wife came home. She noticed that I wasn’t doing well. And so she dragged me to the car and got me to Hilo Medical Center,” he said. “They started a CT scan to see where the (blood) clot was in my brain.
“So this CT scan lady came over, and she called my wife over to take off my earring. My wife reached to take off my necklace and she nudged my wife’s hands away and said, ‘I can do it.’ And then I reached up — well, I tried to, anyway, since the right side of my body was numb. And she said, ‘No. As I told your wife, I’ll do it. My room, my rules. You want a clean scan. Do you really want to die?’
“That’s the last time I saw it.”
According to the suit, Tejada filed a claim for the lost whale tooth, which was denied April 9 by DAGS. It said the denial letter, by Tracy Kitaoka, DAGS risk management officer, “admitted the hospital did at one time have possession of the whale tooth but then claims it was later given to Mrs. Tejada who placed it in her purse.”
The complaint describes the statement as “false and derogatory.”
The suit said Kuha‘o was entrusted to Tejada by his family “specifically because of Mr. Tejada’s accomplishments as a lua (Hawaiian martial arts) master and warrior for Hawaii” and the necklace is “a form of tabua, or kapu (forbidden) piece of regalia which held his ancestors’ mana (power).”
“To me, it’s my soul. It’s my whole spirit,” he said.
According to the complaint, Tejada “feels weak without it, as if he has lost his mana” and that family members who entrusted him with the artifact “have shunned Mr. Tejada … .”
“I try to be quite philosophical about it,” he said. “The stroke team was top notch. I’m not dissing the doctors or the nurses there. Once I got in there, everybody said. ‘You’re not perfect. If you’d stayed for dinner, you would’ve died. That would’ve been your last meal.’”
Asked what he wants, Tejada said, “I don’t believe in the word ‘sorry.’ I never have.
“I didn’t grow up that way. I didn’t raise my children that way,” he explained. “When something is done and it’s wrong, we make it right. And I just need for this to be made right. Will I get my whale tooth back? No, I doubt it. I can’t even feel it on the island. You know, I’ve had it on for decades.
“But I want people to realize I’m not disrespecting anybody. I love everybody. For people who were born and raised here, as my family was, we’re treated as second-class citizens. And I’d like to see that stopped. Whatever compensation I get from this, my wife and I agreed that we just want to help people. Go out there and help Hawaiians who are truly trying to better themselves.”
Hilo Medical Center spokeswoman Elena Cabatu said Friday the facility can’t comment on the specifics of the case, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.
She added the hospital does its best “to try to reunite our patients and their personal belongings and … have a policy and a procedure to do that. And we try to fulfill it as best as we can.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.