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Dr. Patricia Blanchette: Aloha to a Beloved Leader

Written by Marybeth Kotrodimos
Featured Photo: Dr. Patricia Blanchette, center in red, with UHP managers. Vina Cristobal photo.

She has been called “The Velvet Hammer” for her strong and impactful leadership, delivered with genuine warmth and kindness. She guided University Health Partners (UHP) and the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), through challenges and successes and made both organizations smarter and more effective because of them.  For many years, Dr. Patricia Blanchette has been a quiet but powerful presence in our island community. Now with the news that she is retiring from UHP and JABSOM, many of us who have worked with her are at a loss for words to describe how much she has meant to us.

There’s so much to say about Dr. Blanchette.  She’s been called “a powerhouse of a woman,” and “a tireless trailblazer,” but always, her gentle and caring nature is recalled with fondness and admiration. 

A former CEO of UHP, she served as UHP’s Chief Medical Officer until the commencement of her well-earned retirement at the end of September, 2020. In fact, Dr. Blanchette (who is referred to as Dr. B among her UHP colleagues) has held various positions at UHP and JABSOM, including (but not limited to) Interim Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs at JABSOM, as well as Associate Director and Chief Operating Officer for the UH Cancer Center. Dr. B has also taken on roles with the medical board and the state medical association.  In addition, she has been the recipient of many community awards for her service to Hawaii.

JABSOM’s Dean Jerris Hedges called Dr. B “one of those quiet, admired leaders who is able to take on any task which confronts her.” She is, he said, “a renaissance woman who brings great value to all she leads.” The story of her journey as a doctor, instructor, and leader truly illustrates the truth behind his words.

Originally from New Hampshire, Dr. Blanchette began her life in Hawaii several decades ago when her husband, a US Navy submariner, was transferred to Pearl Harbor.  She had previously worked at the University of New Hampshire in the Finance Office as general ledger supervisor while taking evening college courses. They had a young family, but UH’s community college system and low cost tuition allowed her to go to school full-time while caring for her family.  She enrolled at Leeward Community College where she earned her associate’s degree. From there she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Pre-Professional Studies from UH-Manoa, and then concurrent MD and MPH degrees in 1979 from JABSOM and the UH School of Public Health.  Because training in Geriatric Medicine was not available then in Hawaii, Dr. Blanchette’s husband requested a transfer back to their native New England where she trained in Internal Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and completed a two-year Fellowship in Geriatric Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

In 1984, Dr. Blanchette was recruited back to Hawaii to become the first fellowship-trained geriatrician in the State, and to found JABSOM’s Department of Geriatric Medicine, Hawaii’s first ever medical education program in geriatrics.  JABSOM’s Dean Terence Rogers told her, “It’s about time you come back and start the geriatrics program that you kept telling me we should have.”  With all she has done in the field of geriatrics, it is little wonder that Dean Hedges has called her “a pioneer in the field of geriatric medicine.”

A recognized expert in normal cognitive aging, decisional capacity, and in Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Blanchette has served as president of the Aloha Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and as a member of the association’s national board. While on the national board, she spearheaded the association’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and helped revise their strategic plan with diversity and inclusion infused into every aspect. 

In Hawaii, Dr. Blanchette founded a program of physician training in nursing homes, called “The Teaching Nursing Home Program.”  Several hospitals in Hawaii were teaching hospitals, but there was very little medical teaching in nursing homes before this program started.  She herself served as medical director of a number of nursing homes where she recruited JABSOM geriatrics faculty physicians where, together with an interdisciplinary team, they train physicians, fellows, residents and medical students to provide high quality medical care to nursing home residents.

Stunning as all her accomplishments have been, it is the personal interactions that people so affectionately recall when talking about Dr. Blanchette:  the big bunches of apple bananas from the trees in her backyard that she brought into UHP Central Offices for all who were there and lucky (and quick) enough to enjoy; how she hung around and talked story about family, food and whatever else came up in the boardroom after our all-staff meetings; the way she listened and truly cared about us on a personal level. 

And this seems to be what touches people so much about Dr. B: that someone so driven, so successful, so very accomplished, could also be so warm and human.  Dr. Blanchette has said that one of her best titles in Hawaii is “Billy’s mom.”  Her youngest son was one of Hawaii’s best UH baseball players, and that is how she is known.  “It’s the only thing that ever gave me a standing ovation,” she says with a smile.  Her daughter is an OB-GYN physician whose specialty is Reproductive Medicine at the Univ of Vermont.  “We help them in and we help them out,” she says with a smile.  Her oldest son is a teacher at Punahou.  “I’ve always said that teaching is one of the most important professions, and he’s such a good teacher,” she says proudly. 

The image of a highly driven professional with the nearly non-existent personal life never seemed to fit Dr. Blanchette.  Members of her Provider Enrollment team talk about how she always began her meetings by talking story with them before getting down to business. Her household consists of three generations of her family, and she has been known to share stories about them with those of us who have had the opportunity to chat casually with her. She also collects Hawaiian vintage objects. If maintaining a life/work balance has been an issue for Dr. Blanchette, it didn’t show.

 “She is very humble and approachable,” said Tiffany Thomas, UHP Office Manager who served as Dr. Blanchette’s Administrative Assistant when she was CEO of UHP. “She has a true and literal open door policy and would participate in all the small things whenever she was available, like helping to judge the Halloween costumes” and participating in “pot lucks, and staff celebrations like baby showers, and playing games at the office Christmas party. She even donated our Santa Claus and the little red Christmas tree we bring out at Christmas time.”

And she has been there for us during the difficult moments of our lives too.  “What impressed me most was the kindness and empathy she shows for her employees,” said Sandi Deguchi, UHP Provider Relations Representative who has been serving under Dr. Blanchette for the past year and a half.  “I can remember that meant a lot to me when my mother passed away. She came into my office after I returned and sat with me for a while, expressing her condolences and sympathy. She shared with me that she had just lost her mother not too long ago and how she felt about that loss. It is comforting to know you are not alone when you are grieving for a loved one.”

“In very few words she will show her concern and empathy,” said Jayte “Jay” Gomes, also a UHP Provider Relations Rep who, like Sandi, fairly recently came to serve on Dr. Blanchette’s PRO Team.

Jay recalled speaking with Dr. Blanchette about taking a month off to travel to the Mainland to be with her daughter who was giving birth.  She said she was concerned that Dr. Blanchette might not approve her leave since that department is small and always very busy.  But beyond merely granting her approval, Jaye found that “Dr. B was very sympathetic,” and shared with Jayte that she too took a month off to care for her daughter when she gave birth. “’I was the maid,’ Dr. B told me, and I loved that, because that’s just what I did for my daughter too.”

“She always made herself accessible,” Tiffany Thomas says. “She was available by paging through the physician’s exchange anytime you needed her, and she’d often even give out her personal cell phone number. I personally never hesitated to call or text her when I had questions or needed anything.”

I myself experienced that empathy and accessibility from Dr. Blanchette, when early this year I became ill and my own PCP was not available to give me the help I needed. Though I did not frequently interact with her in the office, Dr. Blanchette reached out to me. She gave me her cell number and helped me to get the medical attention I needed.  Throughout my illness, Dr. Blanchette checked in with me and warmly encouraged and received my correspondence with her.  I too had only been with UHP a relatively short time.  I will never forget her kindness and how she selflessly gave of her time and energy at a time when, on top of her many and very weighty responsibilities, she was also busy responding, on a much larger scale, to a burgeoning worldwide healthcare crisis.

Active in the State of Hawaii’s response to the coronavirus, she serves as an advisor to Lt. Governor Josh Green’s task force on COVID19, and has made multiple appearances on television and electronic media to speak about the coronavirus, including appearing on PBS’s show, Insights, where she discussed the State of Hawaii’s efforts and resources concerning the coronavirus, and in KITV’s Breaking the Myth: CMO says anti-malaria drug may not be effective to treat COVID-19, a news feature on the use of Hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus.

In early March of 2020, Dr. Blanchette warned us that the coronavirus could sweep through our senior facilities and claim the lives of our most vulnerable kupuna if we did not immediately implement extensive protective measures such as closing the facilities to visitors and volunteers, screening healthcare providers, and using effective PPE in care facilities. She herself has referred to this as “the imposition of early quarantine.”                                                                 https://www.hawaii.edu/news/2020/05/14/geriatric-doctors-in-nursing-homes/

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There is a quiet, measured quality to the way Dr. Blanchette speaks that causes us to lean in and listen. “There is weight in what she says,” Jay Gomes said.  That profundity in Dr. Blanchette’s words is reflected in the story UHP Executive Assistant, Giselle Borland, recounts of one of her early encounters with her.  Like Tiffany Thomas, Giselle has served in various positions throughout her years at UHP, including Assistant to Dr. Blanchette.

“I worked for UHP, but began at the JABSOM office initially,” Giselle said, and explained that because she wasn’t located at UHP Central, she did not at first feel a strong connection to the organization. That started to change when she attended UHP monthly staff meetings where she listened to Dr. Blanchette share her monthly updates. “I was at a staff lunch meeting when she talked about the importance of the White Coat Ceremony. She spent time sharing with us all the different parts of the ceremony, and explained the importance of each one.”  That was, she said, “one of the first times” she felt connected to UHP. “It was the caring way she expressed the importance of the ceremony that made me volunteer at the White Coat Ceremony, and it was wonderful to be a part of it all.”

Giselle added that Dr. Blanchette “is an incredibly empathetic person and physician, and her caring, knowledge and willingness to teach and share information was a wonderful thing to be a part of.”

It is hard to imagine anyone having the time and energy in one lifetime to do all Dr. Blanchette has done to help those in need, always while applying her considerable knowledge to train and guide other providers as well. When told that she is respected and appreciated for her contributions, she responded briefly and simply with characteristic humility: “I have always considered it a privilege to help those with medical needs.”

Something else that comes up when speaking to people who have been fortunate enough to benefit from Dr. Blanchette’s leadership is the trust she places in those she leads to do the right thing.  Not given blindly or thoughtlessly, it is the kind of informed trust which elevates us to do better. “She listens to us and trusts us,” said Jay Gomes, appreciatively.

Provider Enrollment Coordinator, Liberty Marriott, who has worked with Dr. Blanchette for several years is also appreciative to Dr. Blanchette for her trust and for all she’s gained from her leadership. “Thank you for believing in me and trusting me,” is the message Liberty wants to convey to her.  “I have learned so much while working alongside of you. I truly appreciate all the encouragement, guidance, and support you’ve given.  We will miss you and the bananas!”

That we truly will.  And yet, so much of her remains with us.  For UHP and JABSOM, Dr. Patricia Blanchette will always be a big part of the story of who we are and how we come to be there.

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