By Ninette Cheng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Karen Matsuda is a passionate nurse, an advocate for underrepresented communities and women’s health, and a deputy regional health administrator. Matsuda is among the healthcare professionals being honored at the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s Annual Asian Americans Pioneer in Healthcare on Oct 1.
Matsuda, a third-generation Japanese, was born in Fresno, Calif., to Japanese parents who met in an internment camp in Gila, Ariz.
“My parents always said ‘we met in jail,’ ” Matsuda explained. “They never really talked about the relocation [during] World War II. My father went to visit his family, who got moved from the central San Joaquin Valley with 120,000 Japanese Americans. He met my mother in the camp.”
Matsuda’s father couldn’t stay with the family for long. He replaced his brother, who was killed in action.
“My father was sent over to replace him in the all-Japanese American 442nd regimental combat team,” she said.
As a young girl, Matsuda watched her aunt set the tradition of nursing and public health in the family.
“My aunt volunteered for the camp, along with other Japanese women, to be a nurse (in the government-formed cadet nurse program),” she said.
Matsuda holds a master’s degree in nursing administration from the University of Washington. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Seattle Pacific University.
Matsuda has been a public health nurse for the Seattle King County Department of Public Health, a school nurse for Seattle Public Schools, and a nurse practitioner for Planned Parenthood of Seattle. In addition, Matsuda directed the Washington State Title X Family Planning Program for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
“They got some federal grants in the early 1970s to have a health department and local agencies to start family planning clinics,” Matsuda said. “I was hired to help start clinics in the Northwest.”
There, Matsuda met Vivian Lee, her future colleague with whom she would collaborate on many projects.
“I think we bonded as kindred souls pretty quickly,” Lee said. “I was the director of women’s health for the federal government. Our joint projects felt natural because she was always very observant at addressing public health needs, which led to bright ideas for bold and innovative projects.”
Matsuda was one of the country’s first nurse practitioners and the first Asian American in the program founded by Lee.
“[Lee’s] really a pioneer [as well] because she gave federal dollars to Harbor-UCLA (Medical Center) to train a small group of nurse practitioners,” Matsuda said. “[This] was before nurses were licensed as nurse practitioners.”
“The concept of nurse practitioner training was in its very elementary stages back in the 1970s,” Lee said.
After graduating from the nurse practitioner program, Matsuda returned to Planned Parenthood to teach fellow nurses about conducting pap smears and other women’s and family health planning issues. These issues were particular passions of hers in her early career.
“Family planning needed advocacy back then,” Lee said. “It was a very controversial program.”
Matsuda and Lee were told by the government to hold hearings and conduct research on women’s health.
“After we had had the hearings, we got the word that there was no money for these services,” Lee said.
“There would only be a report that was compiled at the national level. We decided that this was unacceptable.”
“We came up with a number of different projects and ways to address women’s health and established the very first clinic of women’s health in the federal office,” Lee said. “Whether we had money or not, we found ways to [act].”
Lee is the one who nominated Matsuda for the Pioneers in Healthcare recognition.
“She was ahead of the curve,” Lee said. “For example, Karen helped in shaping the very first conference addressing the health of minority women. [It was a] workshop for all providers in the state of Washington who had concerns about Latino women’s health. She also helped plan and implement a research workshop related to African American women, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. We found ways to tag on to other activities and other programs.”
“I was one of the people who had the long-term view of her activities,” Lee said. “I can’t emphasize enough that Karen is a very extraordinary person who was there at the beginning of some real efforts such as disability and nurse practitioner training.”
Matsuda has served as a deputy health administrator since 1998. Her priority now is the education of nurses.
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, in December 2009, workforce analysts with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that more than 581,500 new registered nurse (RN) positions will be created through 2018, increasing the size of the RN workforce by 22 percent. Employment of RNs is expected to grow much faster than the average of all other professions.
“There’s obviously a nursing shortage,” she said. “There are new dollars that have gone to the health services and research administration. There are some dollars there for training of more nurses. There is a shortage especially in hospitals. It’s a hard job. The [universities are] taking students who have degrees in other programs, and you can get a master’s degree in nursing. Nursing educators have come up with innovative ways.”
Matsuda is looking forward to what the future holds.
“Most people, when they think of a pioneer, they think ‘geez, someone’s old and retired,’ ” she said. “I’m not planning on retiring in the next year or two. I’m open to whatever. Wherever life takes me, I still want to work because I love what I do.” ♦
Ninette Cheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.