Talk Story: Betty Bell

To think, the 50-year journey started with a nickel ad in a newsletter.

That’s what Betty Bell, 87, a Kauai pharmacist, responded to when she was working in Hammond, Indiana, in 1966.

The hospital on Kauai was looking for a pharmacist. It seemed like fun, Bell thought. She’d been working in the Hoosier State for 18 years and was up for an adventure.

“I thought I’d stay for a couple years and try out something else if I wasn’t happy,” Bell said from her Poipu home. “That didn’t happen. I’m very happy here.”

She worked at Wilcox Memorial Hospital with a few physicians in a time when plantations provided their own doctors and the pharmacy had Ilocano and Japanese speakers to communicate ingesting instructions.

“It was very much a plantation community then,” Bell said.

Eventually, it would grow. And grow — to nearly 200 physicians and more than 500 employees. Today, Wilcox is the largest medical facility on Kauai and has been recognized as one of the nation’s best small hospitals.

She also worked in Eleele, but Bell’s life has been much more than the medical field. In the early 1980s, she embarked on a successful real estate career. She watched every possession she owned, car included, burn to the ground in a house fire from which she fled. Around 300 people attended her 80th birthday party, give or take. Around seven years ago, she woke up one morning blind. Undeterred, she marched forward with life. A graduate of Purdue University who keeps education close to her heart, Bell stays active. She sits on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for Equal Access and is a member of the state board for the National Federation of the Blind.

“It was a great stimulus for me to stop feeling sorry for myself and get out and do something. So I hope I’ve accomplished that,” Bell said about her groups. “That’s so important. Everybody, whether they can see or not, wants to work and wants to be productive.”

This week, The Garden Island caught up with Bell to talk about the life of a Kauai pharmacist.

The Garden Island: You’re a member of the state NFB?

Betty Bell: I found this organization to be very helpful. I went to the state convention and met hundreds of blind people, who are pursing very interesting careers and the president and his wife of the national association … It’s a very active group … a social thing. We learn to do things. (Group member) Victor has invited us to go paddling with him, things like that. Guest speakers come in. I was president for a while, a year or so. I had speakers coming in, at least every other month. We do things together when we can. Transportation is a bit of a problem because none of us can drive.

TGI: Can you tell me about the experience of waking up blind?

BB: I woke up blind about seven years ago. I was trying to read your newspaper. I remember it being quite upsetting. My optometrist was away so when he got back I went to see him … It was pretty out of the blue. It definitely was. Now, I think I might have had a flash of something that I just didn’t recognize but I’d always gone to an optometrist at least every six months or a year but I don’t think we had any hints that anything was wrong.

It scared me really. It was frightening not to be able to read. I could see, just as I can now, I can see you. I could describe your features. Unless I’m right in your face, I can’t see that well. But I’m happy. I’m getting along and I hope I’m contributing some.

TGI: You said you wanted to get out and do something and not feel sorry for yourself? Was that the initial reaction, to bemoan the situation?

Once I was diagnosed, Vocational Rehab got a hold of me and came out and tried to help me, they gave me a cane and showed me how to get around. We have a very good vocational rehab group here. They are very well informed and are very caring and considerate to the blind, and I’m sure other disabilities as well. Every once in a while the government does something right (laughing)

TGI: Let’s back up a bit. Nawiliwili, the fire, what happened?

BB: Fortunately, my mother had died six weeks before it happened because all her treasures were in there. I had a little black Scottie and she woke me up about four in the morning. So I got up and walked out from the bedroom out into the —it was a combined kitchen dinning area — and there were flames coming out of the cupboards

TGI: Is this a condo?

BB: This is a house. I couldn’t find the dog. But I had a guest. So I said, ‘You’re going to have to get out, the house is on fire.’ They were a little slower than I wanted them to be, but they finally got moving. I said, ‘Take everything you got with you.’ Anyway, it burned to the ground practically. And when the firemen inspected it, they said it was an electrical issue.

TGI: Did you lose everything?

BB: Even my car … And I went to work the next morning. If I didn’t go then Eleele, patients, couldn’t get their medication. So, I said, ‘Well, I can’t do anything here. The place was so hot I couldn’t look for anything, so I might as well go. And the lady next door gave me some clothes. And I just went to work.

(Besides clothes, friends lent Bell a car, and a home in the Kalaheo area for six months while she landed on her feet in 1981.) They said, ‘Please, use our home.’ So I did.

TGI: Wow.

BB: I think that’s typical of the island.

TGI: Did the dog make it?

No. I couldn’t find her. I looked and looked. I tried to get the fire department to look for her, but it was just, it was just too hot of fire. She was looking at the window looking out. It’s rotten. I feel just feel terrible about that.

TGI: You said when you looked at the ad way back in Northern Indiana, you thought, ‘Well, this could be an adventure.’ Has it been?

BB: It’s been a wonderful adventure. I think I’m so fortunate to live on Kauai. The people are just as caring and friendly as I remember back home in southern Indiana, which is a little community of about 7,000 people. It was kind of a farm community. My father had a big shop there for the railroad. I got a very good education, a public education from public schools. Good parents.

TGI: Did you ever start a family?

BB: No, just a dog.

TGI: Any particular reason?

BB: Well, in my day, I wanted a career. And I didn’t think I could do both jobs well, frankly. If you’re going to have a family, that has to be first, at least in my upbringing. I was very fortune to have had very good parents who gave me just everything they possibly could. I just didn’t feel like I could do that and get the education I wanted and establish a career. I always took other people’s kids to shows and things and I enjoyed that. It wasn’t I didn’t enjoy children, I do.

I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t find the right partner, the very right one that I just couldn’t resist or something. Or maybe I’m just bull headed, I don’t know. I’m sure some people would agree with that sometimes. But you have to be able to make decisions if you’re in business and you’re gonna make the wrong ones every once in a while

TGI: Is that a regret for you?

BB: Not at all.

TGI: If you had to classify your professional life, pharmacist, real estate agent, or both?

BB: Well, I really do enjoy the medical field. I enjoyed being a pharmacist … The pharmacists today, interesting, but Purdue, there were eight of us girls in my graduating class, while 68 percent of the students at Purdue University College Pharmacy are now women.

TGI: That has to be a feeling of pride.

BB: It really is a good profession for women. It’s scientific but it’s also not so stressful as some fields.

TGI: Education is very close to your heart.

BB: It’s very important, yes … For a young person, that degree opens a lot of doors and affords them a lot more opportunity than if they don’t get a degree.

TGI:Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText Color So what do you do for entertainment, mind unwind?

I have an easy speak system on my computer that I can put up … Going through the papers, I have to cut out what I want to read and I put it on my computer … and it reads it to me verbally. Sometimes it garbles it a bit, but I get the gist of it. And I always listen to the news in the morning. I try and keep up.

TGI: Do you feel like the medical field has come a long way?

BB: I’ve been in the hospital here a couple of times and I was very impressed. I really was very impressed. I think for a small island of 66,000 or 68,000 or whatever we are, the medical care here is superb.

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