Denby Fawcett: The Faces Of Hawaii's COVID-19 Dead


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Elias Ilar Yoro loved playing the slots in Las Vegas. Jeff Kurtzman took remote exotic adventures every chance he could. Pearl Pruse was a huge fan of Engelbert Humperdinck.

These were three of the 49 Hawaii residents who have died from COVID-19 this year.

But unless we are their family or friends, Hawaii residents killed by COVID-19 are known to us only as statistics in the state’s daily count of new infections and deaths.

Family and friends mourn COVID’s victims in private as they slip away from the larger community, often leaving no trace of their rich and interesting lives.

Without personally knowing the deceased it becomes easier to dismiss the full sorrow of the pandemic.

And a harder sell for the state Department of Health to make people realize the virus might kill them.

Knowing the circumstances of COVID deaths might offer a better understanding of the highly transmittable nature of the disease.

But state health department officials say they can’t go public with that kind of information, no matter how much they might want to.

State health officials report deaths as part of the daily virus updates but give little information about the people themselves.

Screenshot

“We do want to put a face on each death, so that people know this was a person and not just a number, but protecting individual and family privacy is important and balancing the two is challenging,” DOH communications director Janice Okubo said in an email.

Federal law protects a medical patient’s privacy but there is no law to prohibit the DOH months after a death from asking a family for permission for more information about their deceased relative to emphasize the true impact of the pandemic to the community.

Here are the stories of three people with deep ties to Hawaii who have died this year of COVID-19.

Elias Ilar Yoro

Elias Ilar Yoro was a retired sugar plantation worker, an actor in stage plays and in his later years, a caregiver to three elderly people who lived in his Ewa Beach home.

He died of COVID-19 on April 24 at Queen’s Medical Center. He was 72.

The health department offered two sentences to describe Elias Yoro as Hawaii’s COVID-19 Death No. 14: “an Oahu man who had been hospitalized since the beginning of April, was over 65 years old, and had underlying medical conditions. He had a history of travel to Las Vegas in March.”

The stark words tell nothing about his family’s loss and its suffering as it prayed for a recovery that never came.

Elias Yoro, left, and his brother, Amado Yoro, immigrated to Hawaii in 1971 from the Philippines.

Courtesy of Amado Yoro

Amado Yoro says no one knows for sure where his youngest brother Elias contracted the coronavirus but he became very sick, two days after he returned from Las Vegas.

Elias loved card games and playing the slot machines on his visits to Las Vegas where he once hit a jackpot at the California Hotel.

Amado said that as much as his brother liked gambling, he loved even more sharing the cash he won with his family members, freely giving away his loot, including a dollar here and there to Amado’s youngest grandchildren.

“He was a jolly fellow,” said Amado. “And extremely generous. If a relative in the Philippines wanted to launch a business raising pigs or goats, he would send money to help them get started. He paid for round trip tickets for us to visit the Philippines.”

A housemate took Elias to The Queen’s Medical Center West on March 24, and at some point thereafter he was transferred to the intensive care unit at The Queen’s Medical Center downtown. He died 10 days later with his body still attached to a ventilator.

“It was very fast,” said Amado.

Amado said he was never able to speak to his brother again. Elian was in the intensive care unit where nobody could visit him to help ease his suffering.

Amado looked at his brother for the last time April 23, the day before he died, seeing him remotely in a video teleconference session called by his doctor to inform the family that Elias was dying. The doctor was standing over Elias’ bed in the intensive care room. Elias was comatose with a plastic shield and the ventilator partially obscuring his face.

Amado, a community advocate and a writer, kept detailed notes in his journal of what the doctor told them.

“The doctor said, ‘Sorry. Sorry. I am very sorry. Elias is getting weaker. He is giving up. It is not his high blood pressure; it is not his asthma. It is the virus that is killing him. It is the virus that is making him uncomfortable.’”

“I knew him for 72 years. We were so close. He was my hero.” — Amado Yoro

Then, because no priest was present, the family asked Amado to say the last rites.

“I said, ‘I commend my brother to you, oh Lord. Take him, oh God. Stand over him, Lord. We miss you, brother Elias. We love you.’”

Amado says what he misses most is the company of the brother he used to see at least once a week and to speak with every day by phone. “I knew him for 72 years. We were so close. He was my hero.”

The two brothers shared a hardship not easily understood by others who had not lived it: the three years they worked as field utility workers at Oahu Sugar Co. after they immigrated to Hawaii from Sinait, Ilocos Sur, in the Philippines in 1971.

Amado was 26 and Elias, 23. Even though Amado rose to be the plantation’s housing and safety coordinator and Elias became the pump maintenance man, it was those early days working as field hands for $2.10 an hour that always stuck in their minds.

As they planted cane stalks in the heat and the dust, in their heavy protective clothes, they were always thirsty.

Amado said in recent years when Elias came to visit him, he had a a code phrase in Ilocano uttered first thing when he walked through the door, “Adda danum dita?”

“Is there any water?” It was their secret password to remember the times in the sugar cane fields when all they could think of was something cool to drink.

“He loved water, plain water,” said Amado.

These days when Amado drives to the Mililani Memorial Park to visit Elias’ grave, before he walks back to his car, he always leaves behind at his headstone a bottle of orange juice and a chilled bottle of spring water in memory of the thirst that never seemed to go away.

Jeff Kurtzman

Jeff Kurtzman, 60, died of COVID-19 on July 21. He was a flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines for nearly 35 years.

Although he was based in Los Angeles, his friends and fellow flight attendants say he loved everything about Hawaii.

After attending a training session in Honolulu in late June, Kurtzman and 16 other Hawaiian Airlines personnel tested positive for the coronavirus. He died in the hospital after he returned to California.

Joni Kashiwai became a flight attendant at about the same time as Kurtzman in the mid-1980s and spent decades working on flights with him.

She is currently the president of the Hawaiian Airlines branch of the flight attendants’ union.

Jeff Kurtzman was a popular Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant who became ill after a company training program.

Courtesy of Joni Kashiwai

She said they both had come to the profession from dissatisfaction with earlier work goals. She had wanted to be a legal assistant and he had thought of becoming a hairdresser when they found their true joy in the freedom of flying.

“We both took to it in the same way. It was a perfect fit. A lot of us are like that. We don’t like being tied to a 9 to 5 job.”

“When people apply to be flight attendants, they all say the same thing that they love people, hoping that will get them hired,” she said. “But with Jeff it was true. He was a people person who genuinely loved the passengers.”

He also was always available to help people having hard times. He volunteered on his days off to help his colleagues resolve their personal problems when they came to the union’s employee assistance program.

The union created the program to support flight attendants and guide them — without involving company management —  through the issues burdening them such as financial entanglements, substance abuse problems, family strife or their own plain bad behavior which might result in discipline or firings.

“It really hit home for me to lose Jeff.” — Joni Kashiwai

“Jeff was someone the employees trusted and felt comfortable sitting down with to speak frankly about what was bothering them. He had been through a lot in his own life and had empathy for what they were going through,” she said.

Kurtzman enjoyed traveling on exotic adventure trips. The more remote the better.

“He had been to places like Antarctica where passengers went ashore in small zodiac boats to see wildlife. He took fabulous pictures of it. I didn’t even know you could do things like that,” she said.

He also loved camping, joining his friends for a wilderness trip every year.

Kashiwai said he asked her to join them once but she declined, telling him she hated camping.

“He told me that I would be amazed by the way they camped with deluxe tents, soft mattresses with even an espresso machine so they could have cappuccinos in the morning. He loved life and everything about it,” she said.

Kashiwai says losing an old friend like Kurtzman has made the virus real for her in a way it has never been before; missing a friend with whom she worked for more than 30 years, bonding over their shared flying experiences and after work the steak and French fry dinners they had come to love on their runs down to Tahiti.

“It really hit home for me to lose Jeff,” she said. “The virus is happening all around us now. It is getting worse. It is scary and different when you know someone who has died.”

Pearl Pruse

Pearl Pruse, 75, was pronounced dead on April 7 in the first cluster of coronavirus infections at Maui Memorial Medical Center when 38 staff members and 14 patients tested positive for COVID-19 and five patients died of complications from the virus.

Pruse was a waitress, who retired after many years of employment at the Kahului Ale House near the harbor.

She had spent her entire life on the Valley Isle where she is remembered for her kind spirit and the hilarious stories she told about her life, especially her accounts of how she dragged drunk patrons out of Ale House, telling them she knew their mothers and that they had better watch their language.

“She grabbed them by the ear, men more than 6 feet tall who towered over her, with the restaurant’s big bouncer trailing behind her,” said Jaime Anakalea.

“She was an amazing woman. Everyone knew her and loved her.”

Jaime and her husband Leonard Anakalea were Pruse’s next door neighbors on Momi Place, a quiet cul de sac on the edge of Wailuku, a block from Home Maid Bakery, famous for its malasadas and Maui sweet dinner rolls — pastries Jamie regularly brought home to treat her husband, two teenaged sons and Pearl.

Pearl Pruse was 75 years old when she died at Maui Memorial Medical Center, where the retired waitress is thought to have contracted the disease.

Courtesy of Jamie Anakalea

She said she invited Pearl to live with them a year ago after she realized Pearl was struggling to handle her medical and financial problems.

Jaime’s own mother got sick at about the same time in a remote village where she lived in Ontario, Canada, too far away for Jaime to visit regularly. “Here came Pearl. I thought here is somebody I can help. She was like a gift from God.”

Pearl was recovering from a bacterial infection in her leg. She also had diabetes, high blood pressure and emphysema.

“I am going to miss cutting her hair, painting her fingernails. Miss her yelling at me. And miss singing karaoke with her in the carport. Hey it’s Hawaii. Who doesn’t hang out in their carport?”

Pearl loved the British singer Engelbert Humperdinck. She had served him and his wife once when she was working in the restaurant at the Kahului airport.

Jaime said, “She saved the glass Engelbert drank from, keeping it carefully wrapped in tissue paper. She swore it still had an impression of his lips on it. She said he had the most amazing behind. She made me laugh so hard. This little dignified lady with white hair in a muumuu and slippers talking like that.”

“Auntie Pearl’s story should be told. She was not just a number.” — Jaime Anakalea

In the carport, the two of them would belt out Humperdinck’s hits such as “Release Me” and Pearl’s favorite “Ten Guitars.”

When Pearl got a cold in early March that turned into breathing problems, Jaime took her to Maui Memorial Medical Center on March 14.

The hospital gave Pearl a COVID-19 test then and told Jaime to go home and quarantine her family until the results of the test were known. Pearl’s test turned out to be negative but she remained at the hospital in the intensive care unit diagnosed with pneumonia.

When Pearl’s health improved she was moved to a chronic care unit and the hospital told Jaime that they were making arrangements to move Pearl to an outpatient residence because she needed more care than the Anakaleas could provide in their home.

Jaime said the most frustrating part was calling the hospital day after day, asking to speak to Pearl and never getting put through to her.

Finally, on April 7, a nurse called her and said Pearl had taken a turn for the worse and was about to die. “The nurse let me speak to her.

“I told her I was sorry I couldn’t be there to hold her hand. She said she loved me, we said we loved each other. I told her I would take care of her dog.”

Jaime said she later found out that the day before Pearl died she had been given her second COVID-19 test and this one came back positive.

“She got the virus in the hospital. When she was admitted she tested negative for COVID. None of us were sick in the house. The hospital was where she got it,” Jaime said.

Hawaii’s elderly people who die of the coronavirus are usually described in the Hawaii Department of Health’s COVID Joint Information Center news digest by their number in the daily death count with fragments of details such as they were “older than 60 with underlying medical conditions.”

The reports are cold-hearted and seem to say a person died because they were old and already sick, not that COVID-19 robbed them of extra years they might have had and left them to die alone, closed off in a sterile intensive care room.

Jaime says, “Auntie Pearl’s story should be told. She was not just a number. I just want people to remember her.”


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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Thanks, Denby. Most definitely, our islands needed this reality to spike the emotions that statistics never reach. This is a reality that people are experiencing, but within their own space. The people that have not lost someone yet do not feel the helplessness and sadness that goes with knowing their loved one died isolated. Every person is a piece of Hawaii. Every person contributes to how eventually Hawaii will slip beneath the ocean and gone from sight. We don’t just lose a number, we lose the life of one of Hawaii’s own. Maybe a website for the families to post their feelings and the person they lost?  A place for the families to share and let others know that there was a face to the State’s statistic. 

Rampnt_1 · 2 weeks ago

Please do more of these stories of the people who have lost their lives to this pandemic.  We do need a face and the background of each of these individuals and they should be remembered , it is a battle and maybe their stories will help us remember that we need to follow the rules and protect the next human. 

BUHALLA · 3 weeks ago

This is important and memorializes good people.  I think we all still want to believe it’s not real.  

mpg · 3 weeks ago

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