By Jane McKinley-Chinn
Special to the Northwest Asian Weekly
Ken Fugami, 73, is an Army Vietnam veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange, a toxic chemical used to defoliate forest areas that might conceal the enemy. After his military service, he developed narcolepsy, which he suspects was the result of Agent Orange. The condition gradually worsened and made it difficult for him to stay awake during the day. In May 2009, an involuntary sleep attack caused him to lose his balance and fall, slightly injuring his spine and partially paralyzing his left side.
Fugami grew up in Seattle’s Central District in the early 1950s. It was a tight-knit neighborhood with lots of kids playing outdoor sports. Deep bonds were forged. When word spread that Fugami was in the VA Hospital on Beacon Hill, eight of his buddies from his Washington Junior High and Garfield High School days were called. Eiji Arasuna, Art Chin, Doug Chin, Mel Chinn, Jerry Fujimura, Paul Lee, Tets Miyata, and Rich Nakano rallied and visited Fugami at the hospital to give moral support.
After tetraplegia surgery, Fugami was transferred to the Washington Veterans Home, a VA convalescent home in Retsil, Wash. for recuperation and rehabilitation.
Retsil is located across the waters of Puget Sound, near Port Orchard. It requires a drive to West Seattle, a 40-minute ferry ride from Fauntleroy to Southworth, then a 20-minute drive to the convalescent home. His family made the trek. His friends vowed to do it on a regular basis, at least once a month. All of his friends are retired, so they have some flexibility, but it is still a challenge to find a date each month to make the trip. They do it. And it has been rewarding to witness Fugami’s slow, but notable, progress.
In the beginning, Fugami needed a wheelchair — he could not walk. It has been encouraging for his friends to watch Fugami progress to walking with the aid of a walker; he can now walk on his own for short distances. He is expected to make a full recovery.
Each month, at least three, occasionally all eight of his devoted buddies, take Fugami out of the convalescent home for lunch or dinner. They bring him social news and sports paraphernalia, and just chat about the “good ol’ days” in the neighborhood and the Army (all eight are Army veterans, though Ken was the only one to serve in Vietnam).
His friends all hope that their monthly visits keep Fugami’s spirits up and break up the isolation of living in a remote area.
The bonds formed in youth 60 years ago, growing up in a close-knit neighborhood, are lasting and deep. It is heartwarming to see these special ties extend into the aging years.
Jane McKinley-Chinn can be reached at email@example.com.