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A working mom has persevered through challenges, setbacks and a global pandemic to receive her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo this spring.

When the pandemic broke out, Kawailehua Paikai was concerned because it restricted students like herself from traveling. The biggest way it affected her studies was in keeping students from traveling and shifting health care delivery to telehealth.

Kawailehua Paikai
Kawailehua Paikai

“I was lucky enough to have finished spring clinicals before COVID started,” Paikai explained. “The clinicals for summer were pushed to fall and by then most places had shifted to adding telehealth to their practices. Without the pandemic, we probably would not have had as much experience doing telehealth visits.”

As a Kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiian), Paikai is passionate about Native Hawaiians having access to healthcare. She is currently a case manager at Queen’s Medical Center and sees firsthand some of the issues the Pacific Islander community faces. She has investigated the perception and experience of Native Hawaiians accessing health care during COVID-19, noting that Native Hawaiians are usually underrepresented in health care data collection, and that the collected data is often inaccurate. Paikai added, while there is progress in how the government collects data on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations, there is not sufficient, reliable data to properly assess health care access for those populations in the community. She believes the pandemic has only added to the revolving problem.

Perseverance pays off

Paikai attended Hawaiʻi Pacific University to pursue her bachelor’s in nursing but almost didn’t make it through. “I had many challenges while studying nursing. I barely passed and almost didn’t become a nurse because I was on my last chance of not being able to continue as a nursing student.” But she fought to stay in the program, graduating in 2008.

Smiling family
Paikai (far right) with her ʻohana

After graduation she turned her sights to her “dream job,” working as a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit. The only thing standing in her way was the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). “I was pending passing the board exam to start working on January 5, 2009, I remember the date so vividly. When I didn’t pass the NCLEX for the second time I had to give up that new grad RN job and they brought me on as a clinical assistant.”

In 2009, another door opened when she was accepted as a registered nurse at a substance abuse treatment program. In 2011, Paikai decided to go back to school. In 2011, she was admitted into UH Mānoa’s master of science in nursing program but soon found out she was pregnant with her first child. Prioritizing motherhood, Paikai decided to leave the program after completing her first semester.

In 2018, after having two keiki, her academic journey began at UH Hilo. Paikai had been accepted into the DNP program but learned she was pregnant with her third child. “History was repeating itself again with another pregnancy during school,” she said. “But this time I decided to stick it out and see it through.” She continued with school and full-time work while caring for three young children, each under seven years old.

A future in nursing

Now as her days at UH Hilo come to a close, she has had time to reflect on what is to come. She hopes to provide care to her people and is looking into likely working at a community health clinic. Paikai also plans to simultaneously run her independently-owned medical aesthetic practice and child care service.

“I thought my dream job was to work in the (neonatal intensive care unit) but now I realize that with my family being my number one priority, it really comes down to having flexibility in your job. Nursing is probably one of the few jobs where you have that ability to do so many different things within both traditional and non-traditional careers as a nurse,” she said.

For more go to UH Hilo Stories.

—Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura

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