Friends, family mourn kumu hula

The Maui News
Wednesday, June 01, 2005

By BRIAN PERRY, Assistant City Editor

WAILUKU – Family members, friends and co-workers remained in shock Tuesday over the sudden death of DebraAnn "Debbie" Punalani Kamali'i, a 47-year-old Makawao woman who brought hope and inspiration to inmates at Maui Community Correctional Center.

"She went so fast. It was so amazingly fast," said her father, Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Kahu Charles K. Maxwell Sr.

Kamali'i died May 23 at Maui Memorial Medical Center of septic shock brought on by a leg infection, according to Maxwell. She was a training coordinator and cultural specialist at Maui Economic Opportunity Inc. and the kumu hula for Na Paahau Maoli, a dance group made up of MCCC inmates.

"She is like family to all of us here," said Verdine Kong, program director of MEO's BEST Reintegration Program. (BEST stands for Being Empowered and Safe Together.) "You just feel lost. Because of the suddenness of her death, we've been feeling that lost feeling."

Kong said Kamali'i served as a mentor to more than 60 inmates, many of whom were members of her halau. She said Kamali'i would have wanted the program to move forward as a way to "perpetuate the Hawaiian culture."

Members of the halau are "trying to regain their focus," Kong said. "They're looking forward to continuing the halau. That was her life and her passion."

MEO Executive Director Gladys Baisa said MEO employees quickly organized a service in Kamali'i's memory on the afternoon of May 24, bringing together MCCC inmates who were members of her halau.

"It was all so sudden," she said. "We had no idea that anything was wrong with her. It was such a shock. This just came upon us like a bolt out of the blue.

"Everybody was just totally devastated," she said. She said the service was organized, in part, to give participants something constructive to do and "make people feel better."

Staff members bought black ribbons, planned the service, put together pictures of Kamali'i and decorated MEO's conference room, Baisa said.

She said the MCCC inmates took the loss particularly hard because many of them "regard Debbie as their mom."

"They just really think a lot of her," she said.

With the help of acting MCCC Warden Alan Nouchi, halau members were able to go to the service attended by 125 to 150 people, she said.

There was chanting in Hawaiian, and male and female members of Kamali'i's halau performed.

"It was so beautiful," Baisa said. "It was just so chicken skin. She's done a great job teaching them."

Maxwell said he was moved by the service as well.

"I was so shocked," he said, "because each one spoke about her. Some of them were hardened criminals.

"They were in tears. Each one thanked my wife and I," he said. "She touched many, many people."

Baisa said she still couldn't believe Kamali'i is gone.

"To me, it's a nightmare," she said. "I'm dreading going to the funeral because that's going to make it real."

Maxwell said family members don't comprehend the loss.

"We're slowly realizing. . . . Now, we're planning her funeral," he said Tuesday.

Maxwell said he has made arrangements, financial and otherwise, for his own death. But no parent can be prepared for the loss of a child. Kamali'i was the oldest of Maxwell's four children.

"At 47, she was not prepared to die," he said. "Love your family. . . . Don't be mad when you go to sleep at night, because the next night they might not be around.

"It's very painful. She used to be with us every day. We always did things together as a family."

Maxwell said MCCC inmates will perform at Kamali'i's funeral. Visitation begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Ballard Family Mortuary, with a service at 3 p.m. Kamali'i's ashes will be scattered at the headwaters of Waihee Valley, in the Valley of Tears, he said. Family members and other mourners will get to the site in three helicopters.

Aside from her father, Kamali'i is survived by her mother, Nina Maxwell; two sons, Adrian Kamalanikekai Kamali'i and Elliot Kaleihuapalakea Kamali'i; a brother, Charles K. Maxwell Jr.; and two sisters, KathyMarie H. Maxwell-Juan and SheriAnn H. Maxwell.

State Department of Health officials released a statement Tuesday clarifying a published report that linked Kamali'i's death to an infection with necrotizing fasciitis, which also is known as flesh-eating streptococcus.

Health Director Dr. Chiyome Fukino said an examination of Kamali'i showed no presence of the bacteria. Kamali'i's death was caused by septic shock, which happens when bacteria enters the bloodstream and can bring about fatal reactions to a patient's major organs. Such cases are rare, she said.

Fukino said Kamali'i's death was not investigated as a case of flesh-eating bacteria.

Maxwell said his daughter did not seek immediate medical attention after starting to feel ill May 21. The following day, she had a fever and body aches, but she thought she could tough it out and feel better if she got nourishment, he said.

Later, family members called an ambulance and had medics rush her to Maui Memorial Medical Center, Maxwell said. There, she rapidly deteriorated and was put on life support before dying of the infection May 23.

"It just closed down her whole body system," he said.

Fukino said people should pay close attention to their health and see a doctor quickly if an infection gets more painful or increases in size. Cuts to the skin should be washed thoroughly, treated with an antibiotic ointment such as Neo-sporin and protected by covering it up, she said.

"We may never know the answer to what could have happened with this patient" if medical attention had been sought earlier, Fukino said.

But, for the sake of her family, Fukino said, she should be remembered for the "good things she did for the people of Maui."

Brian Perry can be reached at

Copyright © 2004 The Maui News.