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altThe Queen's Medical Center's Employee of the Year represents just one example of excellence among many. Supporting each honoree is a team of 3,700 dedicated professionals. Thus, it is with pride that Queen's honored Pearl Whittaker, Senior Cardiovascular Sonographer of Queen's Heart, as Employee of the Year for 2009. Whittaker was named Employee of the Month in January 2009. The Employee of the Year is chosen from among 12 monthly honorees.

Whittaker was inspired to seek a career in health care because of her sister, who was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect at age 2. What is routine now was traumatic in the early 1960s. Queen's had performed the first adult open heart surgery in Hawai’i in 1959, but it was not yet available for children. Whittaker's sister and one parent would have had to travel to San Francisco and stay for a long time, which was then out of reach for the family. They were able to wait until Children's Hospital began to perform open heart surgeries, and Whittaker's sister became the fifth child patient in Hawai’i in 1964. She remembers that her sister had to have invasive cardiac catheter exams; each required a one week stay in the hospital. Now, same day noninvasive echocardiograms are given to patients instead. Echocardiograms evaluate the anatomy and blood flow of the heart, its valves and related blood vessels using ultrasound technology.

After graduating from Waipahu High School, Whittaker worked as a unit secretary at St. Francis Medical Center through college. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology, she was hired at the cardiopulmonary department at St. Francis, then went to Queen's as an anesthesia tech. When there was an opening in the echo lab, Whittaker transferred and began learning how to do echocardiograms. She soon became senior sonographer, and the department began to grow.

Whittaker had felt that ultrasound was the wave of the future in medicine. "Ultrasound technology is cost-effective and its scope is widespread" she stated. "We can see the motion of the heart and blood flow in real time, and we can calculate the pressures within the heart without breaking the skin." Today, ultrasound technology is used in a wide range of medical specialties. Fascinated by medical technology, Whittaker related that the first ultrasound machines were as big as a room. Transistors cut the size in half, and chip technology made then portable. Now, there are faster processors and some machines are the size of a piece of folder paper or smaller.

Whittaker was also instrumental in the accreditation of the Queen's Cardiac Noninvasive Laboratory, an effort that required physicians and staff to meet rigorous standards in complex imaging. She also worked with Todd Seto, MD, on ways to increase health care access to Native Hawaiians and other under-served groups at community clinics. Additionally, Whittaker has been the logistician for the American Heart Association's local Heart Walk for the past 15 years, served as the AHA Hawai’i/Pacific Mountain affiliate and sat on the board for nine years. She has also helped establish an affiliation with Seattle University, allowing students to do part of their clinical rotation in echo and vascular sonography at Queen's. "This job allows me to blend things I'm passionate about" said Whittaker of Queen's. Summing up all of her time at Queen's, Whittaker concluded, "I truly feel that I've been given a great opportunity."

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