WAILUA — Jean Shiraki says growing up on Kauai inspired her to become a doctor.
“On Kauai, people come together and help each other,” she said. “That idea of a close, tight-knit community is embodied in a physician.”
Shiraki, who attended Island School from kindergarten to eighth grade, traveled to New York City to fulfill her dream of being a doctor.
She graduated June 12 from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. But her medical aspirations reach further than an examination room.
Shiraki hopes to make a difference in people’s lives by effecting change on the legislative level by crafting policy that would have a positive impact on the people who are often overlooked because they cannot afford treatment.
“Policy is my way of reaching out to the community,” she said. “There’s a bigger picture of the medical world, and bigger issues than learning anatomy.”
Shiraki said her passion for policy work began when she was chosen as the Daniel Inouye Fellow for the Japanese American Citizens League.
For about two years, Shiraki worked in Washington, D.C., advocating on issues that affected the minority communities.
“I got to do a lot of policy work on different realms,” she said. “I worked in health care, education and the preservation Japanese American culture.”
As the Daniel Inouye Fellow, Shiraki advocated for the Japanese American (Nisei) Veterans to be honored with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor given by Congress.
“It was a huge effort from Japanese American societies across the nation,” she said. “Myself and a colleague visited senators with veterans in hand to ask them to co-sponsor the bill for the medal.”
The U.S. Congress awarded Nisei veterans with the Congressional Gold Medal in November 2011.
Shiraki, whose great uncles served in the 442 Regimental Combat Team during World War II, said working with the Nisei veterans will be one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
“It was a very emotional and touching moment in D.C. when the veterans came to the ceremony and saw the medal,” she said. “It was a once in a lifetime experience, and I’m so happy to have been a part of it.”
During her last year of med school, Shiraki mentored younger students on policy making.
“I learned a lot about the process of passing a bill,” she said. “Some first year students come in not knowing anything about the policy process. It’s so rewarding when they realize there’s more to medicine than studying anatomy. They see how policy can really affect communities.”
In 2015, Shiraki traveled back to Kauai to work for a month at the Kuhio Medical Center.
“For me, it was such a different and rewarding experience to see local patients. To use Pidgin in the clinic was awesome,” she said. “And I got to use my Japanese, which I was never able to use in the Mainland.”
Shiraki said she’s seriously considering moving back home after her residency is over.
Peggy Ellenburg, who was Shiraki’s drama teacher during her time at Island School, isn’t surprised she is doing well.
“She was always bright and alert, and I knew she was going places,” she said. “She’ll make a difference, I know she will.”
Ellenburg remembers Shiraki as an outgoing and bubbly girl who wasn’t afraid of dancing hula in front of an audience.
“When she was in third grade, she learned how to chant, so there was this tiny keiki who started our May Day programs with a big voice,” she said.
In New York, in addition to mentoring students and writing bills, Shiraki organized health fairs, blood drives, served on medical missions abroad and took on leading roles in national and state medical societies. She was the first TouroCOM student to serve as chair of the Medical Student Section of the Medical Society of the State of New York, and was involved with the American Medical Association.
During her graduation ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Shiraki was awarded the Community Service Award, to recognize her for her work in the community.
“It was a surprise, and I’m very honored,” she said.
Last week, Shiraki started her residency in family medicine at the Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education in Washington, D.C.
The center, which focuses on community medicine and the under-served population, also as an emphasis on policy work.
Because of that, Shiraki said it was a good pick.
“It’s amazing about supporting policy. Plus, it’s in D.C., so that helps,” she said.