By Léo Azambuja
A century ago, a grieving Hawaiian mother set out to build a hospital that would treat island residents stricken by tuberculosis, the illness that tragically killed her firstborn. She gave the hospital her son’s name, and he would never be forgotten.
This month, Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital in Kapa‘a celebrates 100 years. To commemorate the milestone, the hospital’s administration is throwing a free community party themed “Through the Years” July 15, cherishing the “big band era,” said Paige Moura, head of the hospital’s Employee Communications.
“We kind of want to go back in time and reminisce the big band era, and hopefully get some of our (hospital) residents to enjoy that time when they were younger,” Moura said.
Emma Kauikeolani Napoleon Mahelona Wilcox opened the hospital in 1917, with support from her second husband, Albert Spencer Wilcox, according to Patricia W. Sheehan, in Barbara B. Peterson’s book Notable Women of Hawai‘i.
At that time, Albert Wilcox’s niece, Mabel Wilcox, a registered nurse, had been serving the County of Kaua‘i in the island’s first public health nursing services, a program she had initiated. Since 1914, she was the only one on Kaua‘i teaching prevention of tuberculosis and maternal and infant disorders, Robert A. Gahran wrote in Peterson’s book.
Mabel Wilcox was instrumental in convincing her uncle and aunty, Albert and Emma Wilcox, to donate $25,000 to build and equip a hospital as a memorial to Emma’s first son from her first marriage. The land, 120 acres, came from Act 55 passed by the Territorial Legislature in 1915 (Hawai‘i was a territory of the United States at that time), according to Gahran.
At first, the hospital was a 50-bed facility to treat tuberculosis patients. Over the years, as tuberculosis prevention and care improved, the hospital kept reinventing itself. Today, it is an 80-bed facility, including 66 beds for long-term patients, nine beds for mental health treatment and five beds for acute care. It also has an emergency room and provides a variety of services, including physical and occupational therapy. It employs about 130 people, according to Moura.
Emma Wilcox was born on O‘ahu on Nov. 25, 1851, during a time when Kamehameha III ruled over the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. She married her first husband, Samuel Mahelona, on June 2, 1882, when she was still 20 years old. Ten years and four children later, her husband died.
In 1898, she married Albert Wilcox, the fourth son of missionaries Abner and Lucy Wilcox, who had come to Hawai‘i with the Eight Company of American Protestants in 1837. Following her second marriage, Emma Wilcox and her children moved to Kilohana on Kaua‘i. Both being interested in the island people and their welfare, Albert and Emma Wilcox contributed to building churches, funding schools and furnishing the new Lihu‘e Church in 1901, according to Sheehan.
“Emma Wilcox worked through the Kaahumanu Society and the Mokihana Club (both still active to this day) to preserve the past and widen cultural horizons for the future,” Sheehan wrote.
Emma’s first son, Samuel Hooker Mahelona, died of tuberculosis at 28 years old on Oct. 24, 1912. His grave has the words “Mother’s Boy” engraved on it, according to Kaua‘i Historical Society member and former Kaua‘i Mayor Maryanne Kusaka’s booklet on Emma Wilcox’s life.
“Albert had built a small house for Samuel on the Puhi property away from his other siblings because TB was so contagious,” wrote Kusaka, adding Samuel Mahelona was much like his father, very handsome. “Sam was Emma’s favorite child because he was her first born and through the hard years of poverty (after Emma’s first husband died), and in times of trouble, he was always her ship of strength. When Sam died, the wind went out of her sails for the rest of her life. Behind every kind deed, Emma always held the memory of her lost son, Sam.”
Before opening Mahelona Hospital, Emma and Albert Wilcox had bought land in Honolulu and had built the Kauikeolani Children’s Hospital in 1908. The Kapiolani Maternity Hospital merged with the Kauikeolani Children’s Hospital in 1978, according to Kusaka. Sheehan, Kusaka wrote, was Emma’s great-granddaughter, and was “bleesed to have been born at Kapiolani on Emma’s birthday.”
Albert Wilcox died on July 7, 1919. Two years after his death, Emma Wilcox donated funds for the first permanent library on Kaua‘i, in Lihu‘e, according to Sheehan. The Albert Spencer Wilcox building is now the main structure of the Kaua‘i Museum. After her second husband’s death, Emma Wilcox left to O‘ahu to be close to her children. She died in 1931 at 79 years old.
Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital is part of the Kaua‘i Region of Hawai‘i Health Systems Corporation. The regional headquarters are at its sister facility, West Kaua‘i Medical Center in Waimea. HHSC depends mostly on state funds, but Moura said Samuel Mahelona’s administration is trying to be more sustainable.
Recently, the state Legislature approved $6.6 million in capital improvement funds for Mahelona Hospital. The money is to be used for improvements to its recreation room, remodeling of resident room and bathroom, psych unit renovation, nurse station remodel, emergency generation renovation, parking lot resurfacing, waterline replacement, exterior door replacement, new nurse call system and bed replacements.
Samuel Mahelona’s centennial celebration will be at the hospital’s courtyard on Saturday, July 15, from 6 to 9 p.m. There will be music from the big band era, pupus and silent auctions. Admission is free and open to the community. Visit www.smmh.hhsc.org for more information.