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HMSA Member News > Board Member ProfileSpring 2006 IS Magazine5/31/06 IS Online

The Power of Empathy

HMSA board member Luke Teruya, D.D.S., takes the dread out of going to the dentist.

By Georgette Woo

The room was dark and the man hovering over him was stern and intimidating, Luke Teruya, D.D.S., remembers. "He told me to be good or he'd tell my parents and I'd get a spanking." That dentist believed young children didn't need anesthesia because the nerves in their baby teeth are tiny. Teruya tried hard not to cry, but his mouth hurt, and his resolve melted in a pool of tears, fear and humiliation.

He was no crybaby. At 8 years old, Teruya drove a tractor, helped plow fields, and did chores every morning before leaving for school at Wai'anae Elementary. The Teruyas raised vegetables for the family produce company, now called Armstrong Produce, which his grandfather started generations ago.

The next time he needed dental care, Teruya's dad took him to see an old classmate, pediatric dentist Bert Sumikawa. "He turned it all around," Teruya recalls. Sumikawa's gentle approach calmed and inspired him. Then and there, he resolved to become a children's dentist.

A few years later, the Teruyas moved closer to town so that Luke could begin private school. Throughout the years, Sumikawa nurtured the boy's ambition. In high school, Teruya worked at his mentor's side, as his assistant. "He wanted me to be sure I liked the field," Teruya says.

That encouragement kept his dream alive and Teruya entered Wisconsin's Marquette University School of Dentistry in 1981. Instead of going straight into private practice afterward, he spent an additional two years completing a hospital-based dental residency at Utah's Primary Children's Medical Center. After an intensive five-year testing process, he received board certification, becoming one of the few Hawai'i pediatric dentists who can perform dentistry in hospitals. "Kids who have autism, Down's syndrome, heart problems, or cranio-facial abnormalities can't receive dental care in the usual setting," he explains. "We treat them in an operating room under general anesthesia."

Now in his 40s, Teruya is tall and lanky, and his boyish grin puts patients at ease. In addition to hospital dentistry, Teruya shares a practice with seven other pediatric dentists at two Honolulu offices and one on Maui. "I have so many commitments and everything is always changing," he says. "I try to stay upbeat and not get frustrated." His young patients keep him going. "They have such a positive outlook in life," he says. His goal is to make them love to come to the dentist.

"We let them know that, although some things aren't pleasant, we're there for them," Teruya says. "I tell them to raise their hand if something hurts. Then we stop, make adjustments, and reassure them. The more we talk and interact with a child, the more able they are to relax and accept treatment."

It's not easy for Teruya to balance family with professional and outside commitments. Teruya and his wife have three daughters, 11, 9 and 7 years old, who play soccer, dance and swim. To stay healthy, Teruya runs, does light weight training, plays a little squash, and practices his golf swing. He is thankful to his wife, who prepares healthy meals for the family. "We have a family history of diabetes, so I watch my diet," he says.

He is also committed to his position on HMSA's board of directors. As a past member of the dental advisory committee, he has suggested improvements. "But now, sitting on the board, I get to be part of the evolution of change," he says. It's a process he finds rewarding.

"People think that HMSA is only business oriented," says Teruya. "It was an eye-opener for me because it has truly been the opposite. HMSA is always looking out for what's best for the membership."

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