When Steven Akana’s sister Charlene Acopan lay dying in the intensive care unit at the Queen’s Medical Center three years ago, Akana comforted her in the only way that felt real.
Each day, he would take out his ukulele and sing her favorite Hawaiian songs. He was under no illusion that his music would cure the mess of complications that had developed around her heart, but he hoped he could perhaps take her mind to a happier, more familiar place for a few minutes.
But hospital walls are thin, and before long, nurses in the unit were relaying requests from other patients and other families asking Akana whether he would stop by and sing a song for them as well.
By the time Acopan died weeks later, Akana had found a way to make sense of his grief and, in the process, share his aloha with those who needed it most.
Today, Akana is among the hospital’s most popular and recognizable volunteers. Three days a week, he brings his ukulele to the hospital and spends hours singing, telling jokes and taking with patients. He starts in the lobby, makes his way to the cancer treatment center and continues on to the wards. By the end of each week, he will have covered the entire facility.
"It’s really gratifying to see how people react," he says. "Some patients are really depressed, but when I play music I can see them light up. Sometimes they smile. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they grab my hand. It makes me feel really good to be able to do something for them."
Indeed, penned into gated beds, moored by catheters and IV lines, worn down by illness and injury, hospital patients would seem to be the ultimate captive audience. Yet rare is the Queen’s Medical Center client who would pass up a visit by the facility’s volunteer minstrel of aloha.
Akana has been playing music since he first picked up an ukulele at the Papakolea rec center when he was a kid. Music has remained a constant in a hardscrabble life that has included stints as a tour boat entertainer, prison worker and cabdriver. Its also allowed Akana to heal himself as he’s struggled through divorce and physical disability.
"I don’t think about why it works — maybe it’s the words or maybe the calmness — but it does," Akana says. "It’s always made me happy to make other people smile."
With an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Hawaiian, hapa-haole and contemporary Hawaiian songs, Akana can accommodate most requests. Many ask for the Israel Kamakawiwoole version of "Over the Rainbow." Others can’t get enough of the Hawaiian-language version of "When You Wish Upon a Star" Akana and his cousin composed.
And while the 275-pound Papakolea resident might seem an unlikely Jiminy Cricket, there’s no doubting his sincerity as he sings beneath his own set of stars those famous Disney lyrics:
Fate is kind/She brings to those who love/the sweet fulfillment of their secret longing.
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.