After 25 years as one of the anchor physicians at International District Community Health Services (ICHS), Dr. Kimo Hirayama is packing up his medical bags and heading north.
Hirayama—known to his patients and the International District community simply as “Dr. Kimo”—has been a familiar and reassuring presence for the many immigrant families who’ve continued to seek out his care since the late 1980s, back when the clinic was still located in a tiny, cramped storefront on Maynard Avenue, across from Hing Hay Park.
Dr. Kimo is not leaving ICHS. But he is going north to direct the medical services at the brand-new 40,000-square-foot ICHS Shoreline medical-dental clinic at 165th and Aurora, slated to open in August.
Says ICHS Medical Director Grace Wang of Hirayama’s redeployment: “You always put your best foot forward, right? We’re sending our very best to help get things set up in Shoreline.”
Hirayama said many of his South Seattle patients have met the recent announcement of his move to Shoreline—a “hard decision”—with great sadness. “Some of my patients will follow me up there,” Hirayama said. “But a lot of them won’t. For me, the switch is for two reasons. One, it’s closer to my home in North Seattle. Two, it’s a new challenge, an opportunity to build a coherent new team and try innovative ideas in a smaller setting.”
Hirayama grew up near Pittsburgh and attended Oberlin College, majoring in chemistry. He later attended medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, interning at the Chinatown Health Clinic in New York City, now the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center. There, he developed a keen interest in community health and first heard about a very similar clinic in Seattle: ICHS.
Moving to the West Coast, Hirayama began his residency at Group Health Cooperative and started volunteering at ICHS in 1987. At the time, the agency staffing had dwindled as a result of severe Reagan era budget cuts, even though the number of patients being served had swelled dramatically with the influx of Southeast Asian refugees to the region.
Hirayama was hired at ICHS in 1989. At the time, he said, the obstetric care was provided by two midwives in a separate location in the Bush Hotel across the street from the main storefront clinic. After the second floor of the clinic was remodeled, the program moved in. Women’s health services began to grow with the addition of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, a nutrition program supporting new families.
“As we started to move from midwives delivering babies to having family doctors on staff delivering babies and attending to the ongoing health of the infants, ICHS began to really grow,” Hirayama said. “We grew through word-of-mouth. Women are the brokers of health care for their families, and they bring in their whole extended families.”
Watching ICHS blossom from a bare-bones International District storefront clinic in the lean Reagan era into a multi-clinic health care provider in the era of the Affordable Care Act has brought Dr. Kimo “a lot of good memories.” He adds, “It’s been a big part of my growing as a physician.”
How does Hirayama unwind from the relentless stresses of work? He plays volleyball in an Asian church league for those over 40. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he said, laughing. “My shoulder is starting to go.” He also goes fly fishing in Central Washington and Snoqualmie Pass: “It’s challenging tying your own flies. I make some of my own rods.”
Hirayama also enjoys making wheel-thrown pottery, a pastime he began in college. “Actually, doing this is great for doctors,” he said. “It teaches manual dexterity and steadiness.”
During one New Year’s party, he made bowls and gave them out as gifts to each of the 15 guests.
“I have a closet full of pottery rejects,” Hirayama said. “I looked at them again and I realized, ‘Hey, they’re not that bad.’”
What kind of future does Hirayama see for ICHS? “Our area of expertise is the Asian Pacific American community,” he said. “We’ll always have that. We’ll serve other populations as well, and that will depend on the providers and staff we bring on board. To grow, it will be helpful for us to have a strong nurse practitioner training program. We’ll also need to be able to recruit family doctors—it would be good to look at having a residency program in the future.”
Hirayama describes the current time for ICHS as “really crazy,” with the addition of mobile dental services late last year, the opening of the new Bellevue clinic in May and the imminent launch of the new Shoreline clinic.
“The biggest challenge has been patient volume,” Hirayama said. “It’s been fairly high.”
Hirayama said he believes that the new Shoreline clinic will attract new Korean American and Chinese American patients, in addition to students from Shoreline Community College. He looks forward to serving them with the same care he brought to his work with patients in the International District.
Meanwhile, Hirayama’s patients—learning of his impending departure—have been wishing him well. Suet Tai Chin, a Beacon Hill resident who relied on Dr. Kimo as her family doctor for over 20 years, said she will miss him greatly. “He delivered three of my four kids,” she said. “He told me I am the only person that he has delivered three kids.”
Stuart Chin, the youngest son of Suet Tai Chin, a freshman at the University of Washington, said, “Dr. Kimo has an adventurous spirit. He loves reaching out to many different people from different parts of the world. He is always busy, but attentive and careful when he meets me for appointments.”
Chin’s sister Melinda added, “Dr. Kimo wasn’t just a doctor. He made you feel like family.”
Amanda Chin, the eldest of the Suet Tai Chin’s children, summed it up for many others: “He’s not just my doctor. He’s the community’s doctor.”
Disclosure: Ron Chew is International Examiner board advisor and the director of the ICHS Foundation.