The County Hospital: When the Community Needs Us

Charlie and his brothers

In 1945, the Santa Clara valley was living through sharp incongruities. While the country had just succeeded in protecting democracy in World War II, domestically, communities were still reconciling with injustice and the human costs of Japanese internment. While the vast stretches of land in Santa Clara County were filled with mass producing orchards and vineyards, the region’s economic engine was fast transitioning to canning, industrialism and technology. Workers in the area reflected the diversity of immigrants and migrants to the Bay Area, and yet so many were shut out of jobs and economic opportunities—especially recently released Japanese-Americans and returning war veterans.

Unlike most Japanese-Americans, Charlie was not in an internment camp during the war. Instead, he was serving in the U.S. Army. In 1945, after receiving an honorable discharge, Charlie returned to Los Altos where he was born and raised. At the time, Charlie and his brother, Henry, earned a living working for local farmers and ranchers; jobs were hard to obtain, particularly for Japanese-Americans. One day during that year, the two brothers were hired by a local farmer to remove a tree trunk. They went to the site and set dynamite, but the dynamite exploded prematurely spraying the brothers with shards of dirt, wood, and debris. Their faces were blasted with gravel, their skin was burned, and neither of them could see.

The area of the accident was somewhat remote; no one else was in the vicinity except for their nine-year-old brother Harry who had accompanied them on that day. Charlie often said in the years that followed that he knew that they had to receive medical care immediately and that the only place they could go for care was Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, that it was the one place where they would not be turned away, even if they were Japanese-American.

Incredibly, they managed to get to SCVMC by having young Harry load his brothers into their pick-up truck and getting behind the wheel. Once at VMC, they received care that Charlie said saved their lives. There the two brothers were treated for burns, flesh wounds, and their eye injuries. Eventually, both brothers would make a full physical recovery, regaining their vision although Henry lost one eye due to the trauma of the explosion. Nevertheless, they were thankful to have medical doors open to them and help available for them. Both went on to live long and productive lives.

All three brothers grew up in the region and would live their lives deeply engaged in the South Bay. During the war, Charlie served as part of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), a newly created, top secret unit consisting of Japanese-American soldiers. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his achievements and after his passing, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

His prodigious service testifies to the extraordinary contributions of local Japanese-American residents. Charlie gave so much of himself to the U.S. despite the fact that his entire family was interned for three years. In the second half of his life, he returned to school, joined General Electric as a technician where he built his professional career until his retirement. Most importantly, he raised a family.

One of his children is Carolyn Brown, RN. Having experienced so much racial injustice, her father had always taught her to pursue equality and excellence, his lifelong mantra. So, Carolyn became a nurse, earned a master’s degree in nursing and worked for many years at a local community hospital. In 1995 she decided to take a leadership role at SCVMC where she could pursue her desire to ensure equitable care and health services for all people.  A fun fact: for the past six years, in her “free time” Carolyn has taught courses in the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department at San Jose State University with a focus on health systems, because hospitals function best when their systems are effective, efficient, and reliable. And lucky for us, Carolyn has been at SCVMC for 25 years and is the Director of Quality and Safety, ensuring that our systems and processes provide quality and ensure safety in settings where we serve EVERYONE, no matter what.

As Carolyn’s father experienced, our hospital doors are open to anyone who needs us while our providers ensure that every level of care is of the highest quality. This is our commitment to the County—this is YOUR impact.

With the end of the year upon us, I hope you’ll keep Charlie and Carolyn’s story in mind. When you make a gift to the VMC Foundation, you support a public system of health and helping that cares for all people, and your reach will be far. Santa Clara Valley Medical Center has for the first time in its history become a multi-hospital system. With the County’s acquisition of O’Connor and St. Louise hospitals, and the DePaul Health Center, the scope of care for our public safety net system just grew like never before.