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Heart surgeon and philanthropist left lasting mark on the community

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 1984

    Dr. Richard Mamiya points out the position of the bypass on a plastic model of the human heart.

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 2004

    Dr. Richard T. Mamiya poses outside the office of his charitable foundation on The Queen’s Medical Center campus. The foundation is devoted to supporting humanitarian and charitable works across the state.

Renowned heart surgeon and philanthropist Richard T. Mamiya died last month of natural causes at the age of 94.

Mamiya, the eldest of four children raised by a single mother in the 1930s, came from a disadvantaged family in Kalihi but later became a scholar, philanthropist and pioneer heart surgeon known for saving thousands of lives.

Through scholarships, he attended Saint Louis School in Kaimuki, the University of Hawaii and St. Louis University Medical School in Missouri. He was student body president and captain of the football, baseball and basketball teams at Saint Louis School. He also was a starting quarterback at UH where he once threw for 302 yards in a game, a record that stood for 36 years. He was the first inductee to the UH Sports Hall of Fame.

But his road to success was not easy. His father left the family when he was 10 years old, and at age 12 he began working to help support his mother and siblings. That included a stint at his uncle’s welding shop, where he learned valuable skills that helped his future career, according to daughter Monica McLaren.

“He created shortcuts or processes that were more efficient or effective than what existed,” McLaren said. “All of that played into his creativity and innovation as a surgeon.”

Carefully dissecting a dogfish shark in a UH zoology class is when a school official advised him to go into surgery, she said. After marrying wife Hazel Ikenaga in 1950 and completing medical training, Mamiya returned to Hawaii and began what ended up to be a decades- long career in general surgery. In 1996, the physician helped start the international heart program at The Queen’s Health System for international patients who needed coronary, cancer and orthopedic treatments.

He was one of the planners of the medical school at the University of Hawaii, where he became the first professor of surgery and department chairman.

Nine years later he relinquished the role to practice cardiac surgery, at the time a rapidly developing field in which he received national attention.

In 1977, Mamiya was featured in Time Magazine for “350 consecutive operations without a single fatality.” It is estimated that he performed more than 10,000 heart surgeries, in addition to 20,000 other types of operations in his prolific career. He was a pioneer in bypass procedures, often performing multiple surgeries at various hospitals in a single day, McLaren said. He once saved the life of a 2-week-old boy who became the world’s longest survivor of a heart transplantation at the time.

As the recipient of others’ generosity, philanthropy and community service became an important part of his adult life.

His name is prolific on buildings in Honolulu. He donated to the Mamiya Theatre on the Saint Louis School campus, the Mamiya Science Center at Punahou School, the Richard. T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center at the Bishop Museum and the Richard T. Mamiya Medical Heritage Center at Queen’s.

Recipients of his philanthropy also include the Japanese Cultural Center, Palama Settlement, Holy Trinity Church, University of Hawaii, the Honolulu Museum of Art, Blood Bank of Hawaii, the American Heart Association and others through the Richard T. Mamiya Charitable Foundation.

“While the world knew Richard Mamiya as an amazing heart surgeon, astute investor, philanthropist and in his younger years, a star athlete, to me he was a typical father, taking us to the beach, working in the yard, grilling steak for Sunday dinner, and strumming his uke in the evenings,” said daughter Richelle Fujioka. “But what distinguished him was his ability to face any challenge.”

McLaren added that her father, a man of few words, had high expectations of his eight children, whose lives were greatly influenced through his example.

“We couldn’t go anywhere without somebody knowing him, without somebody having benefited from him as a doctor or philanthropist,” she said. “I think he believed he was put on earth to fulfill a purpose. Then his purpose grew and it became beyond medicine and what he could do with his two hands to what he could do with his financial resources for the community. What was underlying that all in the end was the acknowledgement that he had been given opportunities by others and abilities by God.”

Mamiya is survived by his brothers George (Elaine) and Bert (Betty) and his eight children — Lauree Weaver, Christin Mamiya, Richelle Fujioka (Larry), Monica McLaren (Chris), Richard Mamiya, Matthew Mamiya, Dede Mamiya and Jonathan Mamiya (Kapu) and eight grandchildren. His wife Hazel died in 1996.

Services are pending.

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