By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Dr. George Tanbara is a humble man. He believes that his patients come first, especially the ones who can’t afford medical care.
The now-retired pediatrician — since 2008 — even prefers to acknowledge his co-workers’ efforts ahead of his own.
“It’s the people who do the work. I didn’t do anything,” said Tanbara, 88.
A very long list of his accomplishments and volunteer duties over his 57-year career in medicine proves otherwise.
His name still sits on top of a list of about 20 pediatricians and nurse practitioners, one found on a wall outside the main entrance of Pediatrics Northwest in Tacoma, a firm that provides medical care to children in Pierce and South King counties.
His name can also be found at the Kimi and George Tanbara M.D. Health Center, a three-story building in East Tacoma. The clinic is home to the Milgard Family Dental Clinic, Eastside Medical Clinic, and Women’s Health Care. It was dedicated in July 2009.
Tanbara’s parents were from the Okayama Prefecture in Japan. He was born in Portland, Ore. His mother worked for a local Japanese newspaper, and his father worked for an Oregon lumber company. When he was nine, they moved to Los Angeles.
Three years later, he learned how to play tennis, and his lifelong passion for the sport began. A 1939 graduate of Belmont High School in West Los Angeles, he lettered in 10th grade as a member of the varsity tennis team.
He attended the University of Southern California (USC) School of Pharmacy from 1939 to 1942. Again he lettered on the varsity tennis team, this time as a freshman.
His compassion for those that are less fortunate can be better understood in light of his own experiences during World War II. Under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Tanbara and his family were relocated to the Santa Anita Assembly Center at the end of his junior year at USC.
Allowed by federal authorities to finish his final year of college, he received his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in 1943 from what is now Idaho State University in Pocatello.
Unable to find work as a pharmacist, he and his family were rounded up and sent to join 11,000 other Japanese Americans at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. It was there that he applied his education at the camp pharmacy and met Kimiko Fujimoto.
From 1945 to 1947, he served in the Army and was trained as a combat medic. “Because the war had ended, he was sent to Japan,” said Kimi Tanbara. They were married in 1951.
“I was a special agent in counterintelligence,” said Tanbara. “But, when I got there, they needed somebody to do some work in the office, so I ended up doing office work.”
He returned to finish his medical training at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. Again working as a pharmacist — 20 hours per week — he received his medical degree in 1951. “There was one (internship) available in Seattle so I took the internship in general medicine,” he said.
In 1954, he completed his medical residency in pediatrics before moving to Tacoma, his wife’s hometown.
He then started a solo practice. Tanbara said, “At that time, everybody was offered a position except me.
And so, I decided I would just start in Tacoma.
In 1967, he spoke with a few of his colleagues about what needed to be done to continue medical care for their community’s poor since county hospitals no longer provided that care.
Two years later, he co-founded Community Health Care (CHC), a group that ran a volunteer medical clinic in East Tacoma for low-income residents. CHC grew to become what’s now a syndicate of several medical clinics and dental clinics in Pierce County.
He and Dr. Lawrence Larson, a fellow tennis player he has known since junior high school, co-founded Pediatrics Northwest in 1980.
Tanbara’s many awards include the Naccarato Community Service Award from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Pierce County in 1996. He was the first recipient of CHC’s Kimi and George Tanbara Humanitarian Award in 2004.
One of his highlights in tennis occurred when he became a finalist in the 1984 National 60s Indoors event.
Tanbara and his wife have four children — Gregory Tanbara, Diane Taniguchi, Susan Brahm, and Merilee Alexander, all of whom live in Western Washington — and four grandchildren.
“We went to a lot of weddings and a lot of graduation parties,” said Kimi Tanbara about how close they have remained with her husband’s former patients. ♦
For more information about Pediatrics Northwest, visit www.pedsnw.net.
Tanbara will be honored as a Pioneer in Healthcare at an awards banquet on Oct. 1. For more information or to buy tickets, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.