By KARLEEN CHINEN, The Hawaii Herald
Tuesday, April 7, was a deadly day in the state of New York. Seven hundred thirty-one people succumbed to the COVID-19 virus. “Behind every one of those numbers is an individual, is a family, is a mother, is a father, is a sister, is a brother,” stated New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at his briefing that day.
In her life, Setsuko “Sets” Yoshida had been a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend. On April 7, the 21st-century virus that has wrapped the world in fear for the last few months took the life of the 93-year-old retired nurse from Hawai‘i.
Sets Yoshida was a special nurse. In the mid-1980s, at the height of the AIDS scare, she was caring for HIV/AIDS patients in the infectious disease unit at The Queen’s Medical Center.
I learned of Sets’ passing from The Herald’s former “Dear Frances” columnist, Frances Kakugawa, her longtime poet-friend. More than two decades ago, Frances had encouraged Sets to write and had published several of her poems on caregiving in her books. And, whenever Frances traveled to New York, she always visited with Sets.
Setsuko Tomita was born and raised in Hale‘iwa on the north shore of O‘ahu. Several years after her husband, Yoshio “Patrick” Yoshida, a Hawai‘i-born 442nd RCT veteran, died in 2000, Sets moved to New York City to be near her only child, son Abram.
In New York, she lived in a retirement/nursing facility, where one of its residents recently tested positive with COVID-19. Sets apparently contracted the virus. When her condition declined seriously, she was admitted to Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, where she died less than a day later of coronavirus-related complications.
Sets had cared for people all her life — her patients and then, after retiring, Patrick, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
In 1986, the Life Foundation honored Sets with its outstanding service award to recognize the compassion and humanity with which she treated her HIV/AIDS patients, who, at the time, were treated like society’s “untouchables.” I interviewed Sets a short time later and came away feeling like I had met an angel.
Aloha ‘oe, Sets . . . and thank you for all you did for others.
From The Hawai‘i Herald, June 6, 1986
In 1983, Setsuko “Sets” Yoshida watched her first AIDS patient die. While his death saddened her, the long-time Queen’s Medical Center nurse said it also left her a more enlightened, more compassionate human being.
“I felt like that patient was my teacher . . . That young man showed me his humanity, how caring, how courageous one can be in accepting the illness, and the courageous way — sometimes humorously, sometimes sadly” — in which he faced his impending death.
“Maybe because of that very positive experience, I became very dedicated and committed to caring for these people.”
Yoshida’s dedication to caring for those whose bodies have been ravaged by what one national health care professional described as the “deadliest disease America has faced in the last 50 years” was recently recognized by the Hawai‘i-based Life Foundation, which presented her its outstanding service award.
Community concern about AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) led to the establishment of the Life Foundation in mid-1983 to educate and assist AIDS patients, their families and friends in matters relating to the disease.
AIDS is a virus most often transmitted sexually by gay or bisexual men, intravenous drug users or, in a few instances, through blood transfusions. A few AIDS cases have turned up in infants who may have contracted the virus through a blood transfusion or from their AIDS-inflicted mother. The virus shreds the body’s immune system, leaving its victims unable to fight off infections.
Since 1982, when the virus was first discovered, researchers have been working feverishly to find a cure for the disease. AIDS has thus far claimed the lives of almost 5,000 Americans, 40 of them in Hawai‘i.
“In the AIDS patient, I think the sense of mortality is always there,” Yoshida said, adding their prognosis is generally only about two years. For the homosexual AIDS patient, it is a medical mortality that is often compounded by society’s rejection of their lifestyle.
“A homosexual, in the life that he has led, passes through that a lot,” explained Yoshida. “He can be rejected by his family, by people who have biased opinions about homosexuality. They don’t have the normal kind of love relationship that one experiences within a family. Many of them are rejected, and continue to be rejected throughout their lives.”
The hysteria surrounding AIDS has been fanned further by misinformation about the disease — that it can be transmitted through casual contact by touching someone with AIDS or something they had contact with, or by simply being in the same room, breathing the same air as an AIDS patient. Research has proven that AIDS is not contracted through casual contact.
“Because it is deadly, that fear still permeates. But deadly doesn’t mean highly contagious, either,” Yoshida emphasizes. “Fear is due to a lack of knowledge. With education — knowing how the disease is transmitted and taking the right precautionary measures — it’s going to lessen the fear. There’s nothing to fear if you know that,” she insists.
As the head nurse of Queen’s infectious disease unit, which treats patients with a variety of ailments — from wound infections, to chickenpox, to pneumonia, to AIDS — Yoshida and her team have treated and befriended quite a few of Hawai‘i’s 73 diagnosed AIDS patients. They aren’t treated any differently than other patients in the unit, she said.
“The humanistic care is the same, no matter who you take care of. That is the philosophy I always work with — of ‘caring’ rather than ‘curing.’”
The reactions she sees from the families of AIDS patients are as varied as their ethnic backgrounds — ranging from outright rejection, to genuine love and compassion, to the healing of previously estranged relationships.
“What is helpful is if the family is accepting and supportive. That makes a world of difference,” she said.
Yoshida recalled a young local Caucasian man whose mother cared for him at home throughout his illness. When his pain became too much for him to bear, physically — and for her, emotionally — he was admitted to the hospital and died a few hours later.
“There was another young boy whose grandmother came from the Mainland to take care of him in his apartment until he died because that was his wish. He didn’t want to die in a hospital,” she said.
Oftentimes, Yoshida and her nurses become the “extended family” of their AIDS patients. Her thoughts often return to that first young man that she and her nurses cared for.
“He looked to us for personal guidance, as well as friendship. We just related to one another as one human being would to another, in a caring manner.”
Yoshida’s work with the terminally ill goes back several years to her time caring for cancer patients in Queen’s oncology nursing unit. She said her three years there took their toll on her, physically and psychologically.
“I had to do a great deal of soul searching to see why I was affected that way,” she said.
The death of one of her patients, a young woman whose husband was about the same age as her own son, affected her in a way she never imagined possible.
“I was impressed with this couple, how the husband really, really supported his wife, always there to help her, whatever the needs were. She was so, so sick. How can you not be involved with it? Even if you can say intellectually that I leave my problems at work, probably unconsciously, or subconsciously, you still carry it with you.”
Yoshida says her Jodo Shinshu Buddhist faith helped her put her life into perspective — showing her who she was and helping her to realize her limitations as a human being.
“And, yet, in spite of our limitations, we have a deep wish to help or heal another person — physically, mentally, spiritually. And so we go out and try our best to do that.”
Eight years later, Yoshida looks back on her oncology nursing days, calling them the “greatest experience in my personal as well as professional growth.
“Even if I left it (oncology unit), I carry it with me all the time, even in my relationship with my patients today . . . Probably today, I can handle the sadness and death better.” She pauses for a moment to reconsider her choice of words.
“Can you say ‘better’? I don’t know what ‘better’ would mean . . . maybe ‘cope’ better with death,” she said.
Yoshida’s ability to better “cope” with death and her belief that the word “terminal” belongs to all of humanity, not just those whose days on this earth are numbered due to a serious medical condition, makes **life** all the more precious, she said. She sometimes sits with her AIDS patients, for whom depression, even thoughts of suicide, are not uncommon, and helps them deal with their mortality.
“I’m still so young . . .” they oftentimes say. “Why did this happen to me?” Believing in her heart that it is not for her to judge others, she encourages them to celebrate **life.**
“I know you say you want to die, but it doesn’t happen like that,” she lectures sternly, but sensitively. “You have to live every day until you die.”
Excerpts from Sets Yoshida’s “My Shadow”
Whatever Alzheimer’s had stolen from him,
All was returned to him today.
Whatever memories, forgotten,
The country that he loved, remembered.
A final rest in peace.
. . . I call out your name
And talk to you
But you do not answer.
You live in Nirvana now,
You reach out to comfort me
When I’m alone and feeling lonely,
We are always together
Within Boundless Light and Life
Now and forever more.
— From “I Am Somebody: Bringing Dignity and Compassion to Alzheimer’s Caregiving” by Frances Kakugawa