It took Denise Geelhart 23 years to make good on her promise to return to The Queen’s Medical Center — tearfully thanking the doctors and nurses who saved her life.
In 1996, Geelhart tried to kill herself by jumping off an 11-story lanai at the Sheraton Waikiki.
She spent about two months recuperating in two units at Queen’s, and returned last week armed with two boxes of chocolate-filled malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery.
“I came here to say thank you to all the doctors and nurses. … It’s long overdue,” Geelhart said Thursday, hugging medical professionals who remembered treating her.
Traveling from Bloomington, Ill., with three young daughters, Geelhart, now 47, said her journey back to Oahu was long overdue and gave her a sense of closure.
She was a 23-year-old Macy’s store manager in Hackensack, N.J., who was suffering from “undiagnosed clinical depression,” she said. “I was sad and lonely.”
On Sept. 1, 1996, she showed up to work to a packed mall parking lot with the knowledge that she had to fire an employee. Instead, she went back home, loaded up her car and “drove west” with the intent of killing herself somewhere along the way.
When she got to Reno, Nev., Geelhart saw an ad for Hawaiian Airlines and said she figured, “Maybe I should see Hawaii before I do this.”
She then drove to Los Angeles and booked a flight for her first trip to Hawaii.
After checking into the Sheraton Waikiki and a couple of uneventful days on Oahu, Geelhart swallowed handfuls of over-the-counter pain medications and muscle relaxants the night of Sept. 12, 1996.
There were “hundreds of pills” in all, she said. Geelhart ended up vomiting them all out.
Then she tried to slit her wrist with a razor, but the pain made her stop.
She says she doesn’t remember much of what happened next.
She wrote a hand-written suicide note to her family that said she was sorry.
Then, Geelhart said, she remembers on the morning of Friday the 13th standing on the ledge of her lanai, with a view of Diamond Head in the background.
“I don’t remember the fall at all,” she said.
But someone who saw her plunge off her lanai called 911.
Geelhart may have survived because of smashing through trees before hitting the ground. One branch went through her breast. Another went through her arm. And the fall left her with a shattered pelvis and a broken right hip.
Geelhart arrived at Queen’s in critical condition, and needed to undergo emergency surgery for abdominal bleeding.
Doctors told Geelhart’s family on the mainland not to come to Hawaii because she could die in surgery and they would have no way of contacting them if they were enroute, Geelhart said.
When her mother, father and sister did arrive, the Sheraton Waikiki put them up for free for two weeks — a gesture of aloha that Geelhart also greatly appreciates.
Geelhart could not remember her doctor’s name, but she clearly recalled the message that helped her want to continue living.
“He looked at me one day and said, ‘You’re a miracle,’” Geelhart said.
Moments later, Geelhart was reunited with Dr. Alfred Ines, who recalled visiting Geelhart every morning in the eighth-floor ICU.
“That was you who woke me up every morning!” Geelhart said to Ines. “I appreciate you saving my life. You told me, ‘You’re a miracle.’”
Ines said, “You fell 11 floors and lived. There was a message there.”
In addition to her return visit to Queen’s, this trip to Hawaii was a celebration of her 10th wedding anniversary to husband Chris.
Their daughters — ages 4, 6 and 8 — are too young to know about their mother’s suicide attempt years before they were born and before she had met their father.
But Geelhart has been blogging about her return trip to Honolulu and her visit with the Queen’s staff — and one day expects to share the details with her daughters.
Between 2014 and 2018, suicide represented the fifth leading cause of death among non-Hawaii residents — or 3% of all non-resident deaths, according to Dan Galanis, epidemiologist with the state Health Department’s Injury Prevention and Control Section. (The leading cause of non-resident deaths is heart disease).
In 2017, there were eight, non-resident suicide deaths and 43 non-fatal attempts across the state, according to Health Department data.
By comparison, there were 203 resident suicides statewide in 2014; 195 in 2015; 171 in 2016; 219 in 2017 and 170 in 2018.
In the Queen’s hospital lobby Thursday before taking her malasadas up to visit staff on the two floors where she had been cared for 23 years ago, Geelhart recalled that one of her doctors would check on her in the intensive care unit every day at 5 a.m.
She also remembered a female doctor who found the source of a mysterious infection by pulling out a piece of a tree branch that had lodged in Geelhart’s left arm.
Then she met Dr. Elaine Bello, an infectious diseases specialist, who remembered treating Geelhart after she showed Bello the scars on her arm. The two hugged as Geelhart said, “Just know that what you guys did is wonderful. I needed to come back and say thank you.”
Other patients have returned to the medical center to offer their thanks, but no one last week could remember any patient coming back from so far away — or so many years later.
“I would say it’s pretty rare,” said Queen’s spokesman Sean Ibara.
Geelhart’s return was equally appreciated, Ines said. He called it “cathartic.”
“It allows me to think back on why I’m here,” Ines said. “There was a reason for you to come back here and reflect on what we do. Thank you. Thank you.”
On the fourth-floor orthopedics wing, where Geelhart had recuperated, nursing assistant Vega Pascua said she remembered Geelhart from both “the face and the story.”
After saying her good-byes to the Queen’s staff, Geelhart was still processing the experience.
“I’m glad I’m here,” she told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser. “I’ve never been happier.”