Hometown Heroes: WHCHC Medical Director Chris Russell has risen to the challenge

  • West Hawaii Community Health Center medical director Chris Russell tends to a homeless patient in an encampment. (Courtesy Photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Editor’s note: Each Wednesday, West Hawaii Today is publishing a story about individuals, groups or organizations that have helped make life better for others in our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

West Hawaii Community Health Center medical director Chris Russell, PA, has risen to the challenge amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Chris Russell has shown tremendous leadership and courage in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Natasha Ala, WHCHC director of marketing, development and grants.

When the novel coronavirus began to affect Hawaii, Russell immediately put into place new screening measures at each of the five health center locations that combined see nearly more than 17,000 patients annually.

“We were the first to set up testing. A lot of other people were scrambling, not sure how to respond. We took a step back and said, ‘we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know how big this is going to be, but we need to do what we think is best for the community and start servicing the community how we can,’” he said. “My philosophy is, if we see a need, let’s figure out how to meet it.”

COVID-19 was no exception.

As soon as the clinic got the capacity to test in mid-March, they set up the tent, running it Monday to Saturday, screening patients who come to the health center and providing tests to those who exhibit symptoms.

“I’m super proud of our team there. It’s really become a well-oiled machine where we make the patients feel comfortable,” Russell said. “It’s not a scary place even for the kids that come through.”

He’s also working with his team to ensure the homeless community isn’t forgotten amid the pandemic. For several years now, they have been performing medical outreach within the homeless encampments in and around Kona.

“A lot do not seek medical attention because of the stigma of being homeless, but once we reach out to them and they realize we are genuine here and actually care about them, that’s when they start coming in and getting comfortable,” said Russell. “We’ve seen lives turn around because of our team being able to connect with them on that level. Time after time it’s been so rewarding seeing that happen. We are known now in the homeless community as a safe place to come.”

Russell said he has shifted focus during COVID-19 to education, making sure the homeless population is aware of the community health center’s services, teaching the importance of social distancing and providing masks.

“We have encouraged them to come in for testing if they are showing symptoms and have had them come to our Kuakini location,” said Russell, who has done several medical mission to Africa, working with orphans and widows.

Like any good leader, he attributes his success to his team.

“The only way we are able to do what we do is with our amazing team here. The people who have been part of our team have found their purpose and the why behind what they do every day. We may know the what we do and how we do it but if you don’t know the why you’re going to miss out on a big part of the blessing of being able to be a part of something like this. That is what drives us to continue to do what we do and do it better every day,” said Russell.

West Hawaii Community Health Center CEO Richard Taaffe said the nonprofit is “fortunate” to have Russell.

“There is much I can say about Chris — his commitment to quality care, his compassion for patients, his dedication to community health, and much more,” Taaffe said. “The one thing that underlies all of this, is his wonderful, caring heart and it is reflected in all that he does — be it with his family, his work, or the community. He is truly a ‘health care hero.’”

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Added Ala, “Chris is very humble and that is also one of the many qualities that makes him a tremendous leader and a compassionate medical provider who cares for his patient’s body, mind and spirit.”

Know a Hometown Hero that should be highlighted next Wednesday? It can be anybody, from a youngster doing good for the community, to a professional helping with the COVID-19 pandemic, or even a kupuna! Please send your nominations to cjensen@westhawaiitoday.com with the subject: Hometown Heroes Nomination. Please include the hero’s name, contact information and what makes them a hero.