On July 29, 2009, a record-breaking 103-degree day in the Puget Sound region, a ribbon-cutting celebration is held in Tacoma's New Salishan neighborhood for the grand opening of the Kimi and George Tanbara, MD Eastside Family Medical Clinic. Located at 1708 East 44th Street, the clinic is part of the nonprofit Community Health Care, which provides care to low-income, uninsured, and minority communities in the south Puget Sound region. The new clinic is a three-story state-of-the-art facility for medical, dental, behavioral, and family health care. The Tanbara clinic is named to honor the Nisei (second generation Japanese American) couple's long legacy in health care, community service, and social justice. Dr. George Tanbara (1922-2017) has only agreed to have the facility named after him if the name of his wife, Kimiko "Kimi" Fujimoto Tanbara (1924-2017), is also included -- and is listed first.
"I Have an Idea"
The new Tanbara Eastside medical clinic resulted from a broad-based, decades-long effort to address the healthcare needs of low-income, uninsured, and minority communities in Tacoma. The surrounding Salishan neighborhood was originally built in 1943 for shipyard workers and military families during World War II. Over subsequent decades it has become home to residents from a wide range of backgrounds, including Cambodian, Vietnamese, Russian, African American, Latin American, Korean, and more.
In the early 1950s, unable to find a permanent position due to racial animus after World War II, Dr. George Tanbara opened his own medical practice in Tacoma; his wife Kimi Tanbara was his receptionist until the birth of their second child in 1955. Dr. Tanbara was known in Tacoma as one of the few physicians who would treat African American children. He helped train interns from Pierce County Hospital, served the pediatrics unit at its tuberculosis clinic, and also worked with Puget Sound Hospital. When it became evident in the late 1960s that Puget Sound Hospital was going to close due to financial straits, Dr. Tanbara saw that a significant number of Tacoma residents from low-income, uninsured, and minority communities would need other sources of medical care.
The National Urban Coalition had recently been formed in 1967, a national organization intended "to be a representative of all the major segments of community, to bring together the movers and shakers to do some problem-solving" (Gribble). As a board member of the Tacoma chapter, Dr. Tanbara spoke to Eugene Wiegman (b. 1929), who had recently been selected as president of Pacific Lutheran University (PLU). In a video commemorating 40 years of Community Health Care's existence, Dr. Wiegman recalled how Dr. Tanbara told him, at a Tacoma Urban Coalition meeting, "I have an idea for you" (Gribble). The idea was a health clinic for the Eastside neighborhood. Members of Tacoma's African American community also took up the call, including James Walton (b. 1939), Executive Director of Tacoma's Urban Coalition chapter, and Lyle Quasim (b. 1943), a representative of the Black Collective, a leadership organization for issues facing the African American community. The idea led to a meeting of 50 Pierce County Medical Society physicians and community leaders in the Tacoma Community House gymnasium.
Meeting a Need
Two volunteer-operated medical clinics arose from this meeting (and subsequent meetings) with broad community support. Assisted by volunteers and family members, Dr. Tanbara practiced at the first clinic to open, located at Lister Elementary School in the Eastside area. The Tanbaras' three oldest children were enlisted to perform vision and hearing screenings and to "sort records on the pool table" (Sondker and Oldenburg interview). The clinic served any adult or child who needed medical services. It was open on Wednesday evenings "from 6:00 PM until the last patient was seen" (Our Founders ...).
A second clinic opened in 1974 in the basement of the School of Nursing at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood. Diane Taniguchi, the Tanbaras' oldest daughter, remembered that the clinic functioned through "the combination of a lot of volunteers," adding:
"We used to stop by Puget Sound Hospital to pick up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tuna sandwiches that they provided for the [clinic] volunteers. I know there were Explorer Scouts [who took medical] histories ... I was there to help with the eye exams and the ear exams" (Gribble).
Desks and chairs and tables from the school were used for examinations. The Good Samaritan Hospital provided lab services; the pharmacist at the Tacoma General Hospital, Dick Driscoll, worked with pharmaceutical representatives to receive samples for distribution at the clinics.
The nonprofit organization grew over the subsequent decades, despite several struggles to secure longterm funding. The 1970s brought some relief in the form of funding from the federal Model Cities Program. Mel Jackson (1942-2002), director of Tacoma's Human Development Department, also raised private funds to support the clinic during this time. In 1980, the clinics became part of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department under the new federal Urban Health Initiative. Two additional clinics were added in Sumner and Lakewood. In 1987, the organization received longterm funding from the federal Public Health Initiative, thanks to the grant-writing efforts of Pierce County Health Council member Tom Hilyard (b. 1948). Legislators like Washington U.S. Representative Norm Dicks (b. 1940) were also key in providing support for the clinics. In 1997, the nonprofit organization officially became Community Health Care; as of 2018 it maintained five medical clinics and three dental clinics in Pierce County.
"Important Day for Healthcare"
Before the Kimi and George Tanbara, MD Eastside Family Medical Clinic was eventually opened, Community Health Care had served the Eastside from several different clinic locations. After the Lister Elementary School family room, the clinic moved to an empty Quonset hut, and then to the Eastside Community Center. When this center was demolished, a community-wide effort again arose to purchase the land and raise the funds (close to $11 million) to construct a newer and larger building. The effort was successful and groundbreaking for the new facility occurred on May 9, 2008.
Little more than a year later, the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the clinic's opening on July 29, 2009, was attended by a large cross-section of legislators, local officials, and community members. The Tanbaras were both present to assist with the ribbon-cutting, along with family members. In the event program, the family wrote:
"Thank you everyone for joining us on this important day for healthcare in Pierce County ... We are honored to have this wonderful new clinic bear our family name. For us, it also serves as a reminder of the kind support we have received from many organizations and individuals over the years here in Tacoma" ("Grand Opening of ...").
Among the officials present was Washington Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947), who said:
"This is a perfect example of what we can accomplish when we work together ... It is comforting to know that this new health care center will serve those individuals who need health care the most" ("Gov. Gregoire in Tacoma ...").
Reflections from State Senator Debbie Regala (b. 1945), the Tacoma Housing Authority, Pierce County Council, and clinic patients were also included in the day's schedule of events. The building's blessing was performed by the Reverend Kosho Yukawa (b. 1930) of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple and Pastor Ron Vignec (1943-2013) of the Salishan Eastside Lutheran Mission. Facility tours followed the ceremony.
Members of the staff like registered nurse Terry Freed were pleased with the new "upgraded" facility and thought that it gave patients an "uplifting feeling" upon entering (Larson). The facility's expansion meant that three times as many patients were served as at the previous clinic, and made possible the only dental clinic in the immediate area. The new facility included a community room and a pharmacy, as well as access to social workers, nutritionists, translators for multiple languages, and outreach specialists for new patients to assist with housing, food, and transportation needs. In a 2018 interview, Rick Oldenburg, a member of the fundraising committee for the facility, recounted that at the opening:
"[Dr. Tanbara] was just beaming ... And it wasn't because it was named for him. He was just so happy that it was [a place] for everybody" (Sondker and Oldenburg interview).