“Shikataganai,” comments Patti Isaacs as she talks about her life.
For her the Japanese term means “It can’t be helped, you just move on.” The philosophy saw her through a 36-year educational journey interrupted by two bouts of cancer, caring for ailing parents and raising two children.
In her first semester at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Isaacs discovered she was pregnant and dropped out in 1972 to get married.
Four years later she was a single mother struggling to raise two daughters. But she completed Kapiʻolani Community College’s certified Occupational Therapy Assistant program and went to work at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific.
Isaacs re-enrolled at UH Mānoa in 1990. She graduated in four years, ecstatic about acceptance into the master’s program.
Just a week after graduation, however, a doctor delivered shocking news… she had breast cancer. “I went from an absolute high to an absolute low,” Isaacs recalls. She put her education on hold, underwent treatment and was back at the university in 1995.
And then, déjà vu. Isaacs received her master’s degree in spring 2002 and was on her way into the doctoral program in clinical psychology when she faced a doctor once more.
She recalls saying, “This better not be cancer because it wouldn’t be fair.” She had uterine cancer. Luckily it was caught early, and she began doctoral studies that fall.
During her practicum at Hawaiʻi State Hospital, Isaacs began work on the Aloha Garden.
Clients, as Isaacs refers to the patients, do everything—till, harvest, plant, clear vegetation and build. They transformed a bunch of weeds into a thriving plot filled with fruit trees, nursery, imu (underground oven), taro patch, hydroponics garden and much more.
The garden formed the basis of her dissertation: Aloha ʻĀina: Planting the Seeds of Recovery in Persons with Severe and Persistent Mental Illness.
Isaacs was pleased with the results of what she believes is the first actual intervention planned by a UH graduate student. So were visitors from the Joint Commission for Accreditation of Healthcare.
“They thought what we are doing is what the rest of the nation should be doing as far as treating the severely mentally ill,” Isaacs says. “That was the ultimate compliment.”
She received her doctoral hood and diploma in December 2008.
“I just studied. I’ve never even gotten a B. I was working, going to school, taking care of my mom and raising my kids, but I did it,” she exclaims. She returns to the state hospital a clinical psychologist with plans to expand the garden.
“I am so thankful to the university for my education. UH Mānoa taught me how to study things empirically and gave me a knowledge base to communicate my ideas.”
The happily married grandmother reflects: “You never know where life will take you. Everything happens for a reason, like the cancer happened for a reason. You have to go through the suffering in order to find out how to help other people.
I’m really fortunate that my life has been blessed. If I can survive, so can you. If I can do it, so can you.”