Sunday, May 29, 2016

Dr Sherrel Leyton Hammar: Personal Reflections

Dr. Hammar shown with a smile on his face and a keen sense of humor

I remember the first time that I met Sherrel Leyton Hammar was when I interviewed for my first and longest lasting position at JABSOM, starting as Assistant Professor in the Department to begin in the Summer of 1977.  It was hard to get over the gloomy ambience of the musty, dark, stain carpeted and draped office stuffed with a massive, solid wood desk that was afforded a person of importance like the Chair of Pediatrics, then located at Kauikeolani Childrens Hospital on Kuakini Street.  For those of you who are too young to know, this is the current site of the Rehab Hospital.  The office was located in a makeshift room off of the beaten tract of the hospital that was ostensibly never intended for this purpose. I felt like I was entering a mausoleum. Truly the office reminded me of some backdoor office of a loan shark, a gang lord, or a scheming shyster. 


But moments into the interview, the charm, sincerity and gentle professionalism of Dr. Hammar kicked in and I was lulled into a zone of comfort and trust which allowed for an interactive discussion with the end product concluding in my acceptance of the position being offered for $40,000/yr to dedicate the next 25 years of my life as a neonatal intensive care doctor.  And I was excited with the prospect of moving within a year (Sept, 1978) from that old relic of a broken down leaking hospital structure infected with insects, broken down infrastructure, and crippled elevators to a brand new children’s facility that would combine Kapiolani Maternity Hospital with Kauikeolani Children’s. After two iterations, this was called Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children (KMCWC).  Hence, in the interim, I could stand anything for one year.  (Fast-forward - we are about to repeat history with the completion of a new building at KMCWC to house all of pediatric and neonatal intensive care 38 years later.)


Coming from the East coast, my approach has always been confrontational.  You don’t like something, speak out!  You don’t like someone, fire him or her!  Sort of like Donald Trump without steroids.  Dr. Hammar…… I always called him Dr. Hammar…… it came naturally……. was not a confrontationist.  At first I thought this was a sign of weakness, but later I realized that it was one of Dr. Hammar’s true skills in being able to time and temper his decisions and directives with the wisdom of knowing what and when to say things at the right moment.  Many of the problems facing him disappeared when left to their own logical conclusion without a heavy hand or any administrative directive shinning a bad light on his otherwise gentlemanly demeanor.  He believed that most blustering machinations from misfits of the department and elsewhere would eventually implode.  Just give folks enough rope and they will hang themselves. This was indeed one big lesson that I learned from Dr. Hammar.


We spent endless early morning hours talking story in Dr Hammar’s office.  He dearly loved to hear gossip and to relive embarrassing moments, particularly involving the few irksome faculty members who seemed to forever demand his attention and response. He always attached unflattering nicknames to the ones that were particular thorns in his side. But he did so with a soft and gentle voice, a smile on his face, and dressed predictably in his signature short sleeve white shirt and tie. No matter what the circumstance, Dr. Hammar was always dignified and concerned. He was able to disguise his own emotions and biases within the confines of his strict code of proper behavior.  You might say that Dr. Hammar was the father of PC, at least for the Department of Pediatrics and maybe as far stretching as JABSOM.


Dr. Hammar was habitually found sitting in his office sipping his coffee, reading the newspaper, signing documents, on the phone to the mainland, or talking to his favorite confidents such as Bob Wiebe. His door was usually wide open, begging for an audience to share in the morning news, the latest gossip sprinkled with discussions of serious business of the day.  Everyone was invited but because of the ridiculous hours of these encounters, few took advantage of these joyous moments of discourse, sarcasm, discussion, discovery, entertainment and folly. 


Dr. Hammar was very intelligent, articulate, quick witted, and because of his mask of dignity and self-respect, he choose his words carefully not to insult or enflame even the most outrageous encounters and combatants.  Rather his pent up true feelings were stored and tightly bound until the Pediatric Resident’s end of the year dinner.  I would never miss this yearly event.  Dr. Hammar’s would leave no mishap of the previous academic year unaccounted for. Indeed, the biting, sarcastic, and entertaining annual address promised to expose even the most innocent of mishaps, misadventures, and acts of outright stupidity.  His presentation was always polished; carefully worded, witty, engaging and hilarious that left little to the imagination.  It was the highlight of the night that everyone looked forward to.  And it was dearly missed in the later years of Dr. Hammar’s tenure as Chair as his wit, energy and combative spirit dimmed with time and decades of hard labor at his job.  


Sherrel Hammar was more than just my Department Chair.  He was my friend. He was there for me when my wife developed breast cancer. He was compassionate, supportive, and understanding over the last four years of her life as I powerlessly witnessed the progressive deterioration in her condition. He shared many of the challenges in his life, both professionally and personally which I will not repeat here. The point is that Dr. Hammar displayed his humanity, not only acting as a department chair but also as a human in need of kindness and understanding.  Clearly there were many challenges in Dr. Hammar’s life, just like the rest of us.  He seemed to take the bad with the good dedicating his energy and attention fully to his role as the Department Chair and later to the Interim Dean of JABSOM.


Several of us were invited to his home on various occasions.  I forget exactly when, but at some point in time, he moved from the windward side (if my memory serves me I think it was a condominium called Windward Passage) to a condominium called the Sovereign, located a few buildings from the Central Union Church, literally a stones throw from KMCWC.  It was a neatly furnished condo filled with artwork of his own making, well lit, spacious, and comfortable and in a perfect location. But for reasons unknown, the opportunity for Dr. Hammar to catch a little fresh air walking the few minutes from the condo to his office was squandered.  Indeed, every day including Saturday, he faithfully drove the one block from his condo to the hospital parking lot.  I suspect that he was reserving any unnecessary energy that he might expend on the short stroll for more important matters of the day.


As a result of this routine, Dr. Hammar’s cars were a hot item for those in his inner circle.  He would always sell his car after several years of use using blue book values to determine price and offer it to anyone interested.  Consider how little Dr. Hammar drove, and the fact that 98% of the time, his car was immaculate and protected from the elements in condo and hospital garages. I was particularly in love with a red Honda prelude that had around 10,000 miles on it. Even as a used car, it looked brand new.  Dr. Hammar eventually sold it to another faculty member. To this day, I am disappointed with Dr. Hammar’s decision not to sell his beautiful car to me! 


Dr. Hammar’s couch potato routine did little to enhance his fitness in the later years of his life at JABSOM.  He eventually joined the Honolulu Club and for a few years attempted to reverse the ravages of his sluggard ways.  I witnessed his valiant attempt to stimulate his cardiovascular system and for a while I saw him regularly at the Honolulu club giving it his best shot.


Invariably Dr. Hammar aged like the rest of us, and there was no disguising the effect of time on Dr. Hammar’s appearance.  I’m not sure whether accepting the role of Interim Dean was a good idea for him personally because this was a time of real instability and uncertainty at JABSOM. Dr. Hammar had to valiantly confront a vast array of internal and external challenges in keeping JABSOM safe from extinction.  In my view, his tenure as Dean was the most challenging time for JABSOM and his contribution was little appreciated or recognized as he successfully transitioned his deanship to the Cadman. 


Dr. Hammar was not a confrontationist.  He had to weather a lot of outrageous assaults from disgruntled academics and community members.  He did so valiantly taking the high road at every turn.  Maybe Donald Trump could learn something from Dr. Hammar’s approach. But Dr. Hammar was neither thin skinned or thick skinned.  He was human and felt pain when it was inflicted but knew better how to handle it than most of us.


Dr. Hammar had a great office and a private bathroom that was only his to use. I figured that you had to be really important to have your own bathroom and always considered this a measure of success and status.  For some reason, I was given access to this bathroom only once in my career.  There displayed in plain sight was a framed quotation next to the lavatory which said something to the effect that “ I have been yelled at, insulted, chocked, embarrassed, kicked, slapped, etc, etc, and the only reason I stick around is to see what will happen next”.  This statement framed pretty much of what Dr. Hammar thought about his existence at JABSOM. But he weathered the storm with a smile on his face, an inner confidence and the wisdom of knowing how to get the job done.  He also understood the cost that one must endure in a leadership position.  And in the end, Dr. Hammar had the last word and the last laugh. He was a great productive academic, a valuable member of our medical community, and an effective educator and a visionary leader of physicians.


Lets not forget the life and contributions of Sherrel Leyton Hammar, M.D.

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