Faces of the Diaspora: A Young Doctor Dreams of Returning Home

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The path that led Dr. Kekoa Taparra, 33, to become a resident physician at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., began with heartbreak.

Born and raised in Mililani, Oʻahu, Taparra watched many of his relatives suffer before passing away from various cancers. “I remember 10 family members got cancer and then just died, and they’re all Hawaiian,” Taparra said. One particularly haunting memory was watching his aunt suffering from endometrial cancer continuously push a button for more and more pain medication.

On the first day of his Ph.D. program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore some 12 years ago, Taparra met a physician, Dr. Phuoc T. Tran, who would change his life. Tran took him to help treat a patient with cancer. Shocked, Taparra asked, “Wait, you can cure this?” The realization inspired years of work to advocate for Pacific Islander health equity.

As a child, Taparra never dreamed of being a doctor. “I didn’t even think that that was something that you could do as a Hawaiian,” he said. Instead, he debated between working as a dolphin trainer or an Apple store employee.

Throughout his childhood, Taparra and his older sister were supported by working parents – his mother as a public school teacher and his father as an electric company employee.

With Kanaka ʻŌiwi blood on both sides of his ʻohana, Taparra connected with the ocean, calling it “a big part of my identity.” Taparra and his father spent a lot of time fishing together. His dad not only taught him the names of different fish in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, but also the values of sustainability and aloha ʻāina.

Taparra recognizes that his generation is privileged in having shed much of the oppression and shame caused by colonization, with social media and online education resources helping reconnect Hawaiians on the islands and in the diaspora to their culture. “We have pride in being Hawaiian, but I think that, unfortunately, generations prior to us really did not grow up with that,” he said.

As a student at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama, Taparra first explored his interest in science under Kumu Gail Ishimoto, although he didn’t necessarily nurture a love for academia. He sought out colleges where he could swim competitively – which led him to Fairfield University in Connecticut.

The Northeast’s cold climate, affluence and racial hegemony caused culture shock – although he also encountered kindness. “You’re tokenized in a way,” Taparra said about being Hawaiian on the continent. “It’s oftentimes very isolating and alienating.”

One summer, Taparra studied abroad in Japan. He started his undergraduate program as a computer science major, but eventually graduated with two majors, two concentrations and three minors. During his undergraduate career, he acquired mentors who encouraged him to pursue science as a career.

Navigating the unfamiliar application process for Ph.D. programs, he initially just applied to Yale University – until a professor suggested Johns Hopkins. Unbeknownst to him, that would become his next educational step at the age of 21.

In Baltimore, he experienced city life, a different culture, and varying levels of safety. There, Taparra also met his future wife, Katie, who worked as a technician in his Ph.D. lab.

“I grew into my adulthood in Baltimore,” Taparra reflected.

Over his four years at Johns Hopkins, Tran pushed Taparra to go to medical school as a way to take care of the lāhui, helping him prepare for the prerequisites and the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

Later, Taparra moved to Rochester, Minn. – a place that reminded him of home because of its warm community despite being what he referred to as “a frozen tundra” – to earn a doctor of medicine degree from the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. That took him another four years.

While working on his medical degree, Taparra and Katie dated. He brought her back to Hawaiʻi to meet his family and watched as she cared for his grandfather on dialysis. In medical school, he also worked in a Waimānalo clinic, with Katie helping patients take their diabetes medication and insulin shots.

“She’s not Kanaka, but she truly cares about our community,” Taparra said. They were married in 2019.

Last year, Taparra was selected as part of the inaugural cohort of the President Barack Obama Foundation Leaders USA program, joining the likes of politicians, nonprofit owners and CEOs. He recently spoke at a convening in Chicago about a lab of Pacific Islander students that he currently runs, where they learn about community health disparities, tackling structural racism, and surmounting Indigenous erasure.

“I really used that as an opportunity to uplift the voices of people in the group that I work with,” Taparra said. “They are the future.”

Taparra is now in his fourth year of residency at Stanford, with one year remaining. He’s also balancing more schooling to earn a Master of Public Health degree from Hawaiʻi Pacific University.

Taparra is currently interviewing for jobs in Hawaiʻi, with the end goal of returning home. He wants the lāhui to know that the wisdom of our kūpuna about the ʻāina and healthy living was always correct.

And to the diaspora, he says, “The true success is not just leaving [Hawaiʻi], if you left, but to find ways to come back and contribute to the lāhui.”