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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 2, 2006

Doctor stresses cultural roots of pain, healing and medicine

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Kawika Liu has been looking for a way to serve.

He got his doctorate in political science, moving to Western Samoa to conduct research for his dissertation.

Then he got his law degree from the University of Hawai'i and worked as an attorney in Honolulu for several years. His desire to make a difference got in the way.

"I'm a poor business-person. I took more pro bono cases than paid clients," he says. Though he enjoyed the work, he felt he could do more.

Then, inspired by kanaka maoli physician and community leader Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, Liu went to medical school, attending St. George's University in Grenada. He is finishing up his residency in the dual discipline of medicine and pediatrics, and will move to Moloka'i in June to work alongside the highly respected and fondly regarded Dr. Emmett Aluli.

At 40, Liu is embarking on a new chapter, a calling, following an image of a lifestyle where he can grow his own kalo and 'ulu in his yard, go fishing, help people help themselves and get to know the soul of a community slowly over time.

"I'm going to be malihini on Moloka'i," he says. "My thought is to stay back until people invite me in."

Liu is part of the next generation in a lineage of politically active Hawaiian doctors. When he speaks, he quotes philosophers and refers to issues of colonization, marginalization, and the idea of how decades of cultural trauma can become imprinted on the neurological level.

"There are huge issues of class, ethnicity, gender, history and politics affecting health," he says. "If you don't understand that, you don't understand what is healing."

He says his background in political science and law "helps me contextualize health issues."

His experiences as a patient, having being hospitalized and intubated twice for severe asthma, also shape his approach to patient care.

"If you haven't been on the other side, it's hard to understand. It's not benign being a patient," he says. "My kuleana is trying to translate between the patient's experience and the language of medicine and between cultures. All reality is perceived through language."

Liu spent much of his childhood in California after his parents divorced. He moved back to Hawai'i 18 years ago. While a graduate student, an attorney and a medical resident, Liu also has been active in the movement for Native Hawaiian independence, and perhaps this perspective more than anything else in his background influences his ideas as a doctor.

" 'Pono' doesn't mean 'cure.' It means 'balance,' " he says, "particularly when dealing with chronic diseases such as diabetes.

"In Western medicine, the belief is that eventually the body can be totally known. There are issues of control. It's like, 'We're using our medicine on you and we expect your body to conform.' "

He has ideas about community-owned healthcare, run like a co-op, where members get a voting share and "their kuleana is to see a practitioner once a year, be it a physician, kahuna la'au lapa'au, chiropractor. They have ownership over their own health.

"If you can help people become healthy, they can be self-determining and make their own choices."

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.