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Aloha Air Cargos Lynn Tanaka looks to the future and the past after life-changing surgery

By Hilary Reeves

Growing up in Hawaii, Lynn Tanaka was more interested in tea ceremonies than piano lessons, in flower arranging than the hula.

“My Aunt had a huge influence on me during my early childhood,” she explained. “She was from Japan, and was the caregiver for my older brother and me before we started to attend school. She spoke mostly Japanese, so I had to learn to speak Japanese to communicate with her. From my Aunt I learned many cultural values that taught me to be humble, try my best at whatever I do, and always do the right thing. To this day, I hold these values close to my heart.”

As Tanaka grew older and her interest in boys escalated, the fantasy wedding gown with the long veil was a frequent topic of discussion among her friends – but Tanaka had something else in mind.

“I always had a vision of walking down the aisle in a beautiful kimono,” she explained. “Many years later, on my wedding day, my Aunt cried as she helped to get me dressed in a beautiful, formal silk kimono. I was the daughter she never had, and she was very proud to be my ‘other’ mom.”

When Tanaka’s family asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer was always, “a stewardess.”

Lynn gestures for another worker
Lynn worked cargo ops as her first entry in to the airline business, a significant change from her previous career in the banking industry

“Now they are called ‘flight attendants,’ of course,” she laughed. “It seemed like a glamorous dream job, and being able to travel to faraway places intrigued me. Interestingly, I now have a job with an airline that moves boxes, not passengers.”

Tanaka is the Manager of Cargo Systems for Honolulu-based Aloha Air Cargo. Her airline career began in 2001 when she was hired as a part-time Contract Service Agent at Aloha Airlines. She began as a cargo agent for American Trans Air – accepting, building, breaking, and manifesting freight to flights.

“I wore a uniform polo shirt, shorts, and safety boots to work, operated a forklift and lifted heavy, wet and dripping fish boxes for our international cargo operations,” she said. “It was a far cry from the previous 20 years I’d spent working with attorneys as a Compliance Officer in the finance industry.”

Tanaka’s new career path might have differed greatly from her previous work, but the hard physical labor of her new position was par for the course.

“After my first year in college, I went to Japan for four months at the urging of my parents to attend a religious school in Tenri,” she said. “There were times when I didn’t understand the reasons why we did the things we did, such as shoveling dirt into rope nets and carrying the heavy nets to move the dirt. ‘Why couldn’t this be done with a bulldozer,’ I wondered, instead of using manual labor. I later learned the ultimate lesson was to be thankful for the body that was given to me.”

Years of compliance

Cargo Team poses on stairs to a jet
Lynn with the HNL Cargo crew with the Aloha Airlines airplane painted by local marine life artist, Wyland

Tanaka returned to Hawaii to finish her degree, but the desire to travel never abated. She decided first to attend a travel academy to become a travel agent.

“I really enjoyed learning the exciting airline and travel booking process and business,” she said. “After graduation, as I was seeking employment, a friend suggested a totally different career opportunity in the finance industry.  I knew it would be a challenge, but I accepted the challenge and the job.”

Tanaka started as an entry level credit interviewer and, over the years, worked her way up to assistant manager, and then branch manager. In 1987, after 11 years with her company, it was sold. Fortunately, she said, she was offered a new position. Tanaka went from being a lender to being a collector.

“I spent my days chasing money that was owed to loans in default,” she said. “As a Compliance Officer, my responsibility was to manage the real estate foreclosure portfolio, compile reports, and ensure all legal and court dates were met. While I had a successful career, thoughts of working for an airline still kept returning, and I knew that I would someday need to find my place somewhere out there.  One day in late 2000, I woke up and decided that ‘that’ day had arrived.”

Aloha Airlines

Tanaka saw an ad seeking reservation agents for Aloha Airlines in a local newspaper and quickly applied.

“I was sent to a college campus computer lab to take a typing test, along with about 500 others vying for the 10 positions,” she said. “I didn’t finish in the top 10 percent, and was disappointed, however the Human Resources team had set up a desk advertising other opportunities within the company. I decided to apply for a cargo agent position.”

The tail of Aloha Air Cargo plane backdropped by blue skies
Aloha Air Cargo had its beginnings as a unit of Aloha Airlines, a passenger airline that served Hawaii and US mainland destinations from 1946 to 2008 for 61 years. On March 31, 2008, Aloha Airlines closed its doors, halting its passenger services. Aloha Airlines and its creditors, with the help of U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, sold the airline’s profitable cargo division to Saltchuk

During the interviewing process, Tanaka was asked why she wanted to make the switch to such a labor-intensive job that payed so much less than her previous position in finance.

“I responded that I had always wanted to work for an airline, and that I wanted a job that I could leave at the end of the day with no worries after I went home,” she said. “I was spending way too much time at my previous job and even took it home with me daily. I got the good news the day after Christmas that I was hired and was to start my new airline career after the New Year, 2001 and I was ecstatic.”

Tanaka eventually moved over to the Aloha Airlines cargo operations where she learned how freight moved from Honolulu to stations in Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island, and later the mainland. A Cargo Sales position was posted in 2004, and she took that opportunity to learn a different part of the airline industry.

In April, 2008, Aloha Airlines ceased cargo operations. Saltchuk Resources acquired the business the following month, renaming the company “Aloha Air Cargo.” Tanaka stayed with the company through the transition, becoming the Manager of Cargo Systems.

“I am currently tasked with managing our air waybill system, and ensuring that all users of the system are provided with the necessary training to use this electronic tool,” she explained. “I always keep my eye out for process improvement so that we can continue to be the best at what we do every day.  My favorite Covey mantra is ‘begin with the end in mind.’ I try to determine what the desired end result needs to be and work backwards.”

An unlikely diagnosis

In June 2012, Tanaka’s path took a life-threatening turn when she was unknowingly bitten by a spider.

“There was some reorganizing in Cargo Operations and I was reassigned to Finance,” she said. “I was very busy, packing up my office to move to another location where the Finance Department was located. For three weeks I came in early every day to pack, did my daily work, then loaded my car with boxes to take to my new cubicle, unloaded the boxes, and returned to my office to wrap up my day.  I then loaded my car with my personal items to take home.”

By the last week of June, Tanaka was exhausted – but she attributed her fatigue to the move.

“By Friday, I was extremely exhausted,” she said. “I slept most of Saturday, and still felt so tired.  When I tried to get up Sunday morning, I somehow lost my balance and fell.  My right foot felt like it twisted under and I could not get up without assistance.”

On Monday morning, she went to the doctor, who suspected a fracture and ordered an X-ray. Several days later, Tanaka was informed that there was no fracture – but her ankle continued to deteriorate.

“My ankle had become red, swollen, and covered with what looked like blisters,” she said. “I couldn’t lift my right arm. I went to the emergency room where I was issued antibiotics, a cane that I couldn’t even use, and an appointment with a foot specialist that was two weeks away.”

Two weeks later, the foot surgeon set an appointment for Tanaka to get an MRI, but that appointment was another two weeks away.

“Time was not on my side, and I learned that getting medical care takes an enormous amount of patience,” she said. “In the meantime, my right arm felt like it was going to fall off.  I was then referred to another orthopedic surgeon for my right arm and was scheduled for an MRI on my arm. When this doctor looked at my swollen foot, he was very concerned at the state of the injury and immediately referred me to his collogue, another orthopedic surgeon.”

The appointment for the second foot specialist finally came after another couple of weeks.   “When this surgeon looked at my foot, he quickly left the examining room to make a telephone call,” Tanaka said. “He returned to inform me that it was critical that I get to the hospital immediately, and to plan to be there for six weeks.”

The call that the doctor made was to the top infectious disease specialist in Hawaii. Tanaka was admitted to Castle Medical Center’s acute care floor.  After 45 days, she said she finally felt that she was being properly cared for and was relieved that she was in a facility that really understood her condition and the extreme pain it caused.

“It was determined that it was indeed a spider bite, evidenced by the puncture wound,” she said. “Samples were constantly taken to determine the source of the infection but all the cultures and lab work did not provide any clue. The difficulty was that I was on antibiotics from the beginning and this made the task a challenge.”

Tanaka had her first surgery to flush out the infection in her foot in August, and another in September, eventually requiring a blood transfusion. The infection in her foot eventually stabilized and she was discharged from the hospital. On one of what turned out to be the last appointment with the infectious disease specialist, he called the orthopedic surgeon and scheduled an immediate appointment. By this time, Tanaka’s ankle bone was becoming detached from the leg bone and she could feel her foot “floating.” Tanaka said she began thinking about all the love, care, and effort that her family and friends gave her during her four-month struggle.

“My son was my guardian angel,” she said. “Even though he didn’t have any medical training, he properly administered the daily antibiotics and kept the wounds sterile.  He figured out how to manage all the IV lines and also took care of all my other needs, cooked and fed me, and stayed up all night to make sure that I was comfortable. As I laid in bed pondering my seemingly bleak future of being mostly bedridden, having to have someone take care of my every need, coping with the intense pain, and taking antibiotics and pain medication for the rest of my life, I decided that my life should be more than this.”

Tanaka made the decision to have her leg amputated.

“I still had unfinished projects to complete, places to travel to and have fun with my family and friends,” she said. “I missed being at work and the daily busy activity. It was not a difficult decision, it was the right one for me.”

When Tanaka told her orthopedic surgeon, he was shocked.

“He said he never had a patient ask to amputate, and that he usually has to build up the courage to tell a patient that he recommends amputation,” she said. “I was encouraged when he said that I was the bravest person that he knew.”

Tanaka’s amputation surgery was scheduled for two weeks later, on October 30, 2012. Post-surgery, she was on a mission to prepare her body for the challenge of walking on a prosthetic leg. She was transferred to a rehab center where she put her experience with manual labor to work.

“I continued to work hard every day to maximize my time spent in rehab, and was encouraged by my family, friends, the Aloha Air Cargo Ohana, and also the staff at the rehab center,” she said. “By the end of two weeks, I was ready to be discharged and arranged for home therapy. I still had to work on getting my knee totally straight to qualify for the prosthesis. On discharge day, the day before Thanksgiving, the staff took me out in the wheelchair as required, and all clapped as they watched me get up with my crutches and ‘walk’ to the car to be taken home. I was very proud of myself, but mostly I was extremely thankful that I had such caring individuals who helped me to get to this point. I was on my way to the next phase.”

In January of 2013, Tanaka’s prosthesis was ready.

“It took several attempts to take a few steps comfortably, but after practice and more practice using the parallel bars, I could make the length of the bars and back a little faster each time. By May, I was released to full duty and I was thrilled to return to the job that I love and be with the great team at Aloha Air Cargo.”

Looking to the future

Tanaka’s travels have taken her around the world, and she said her “bucket list” is long.

Lynn with the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye during a visit to Aloha Air Cargo, July 2008
Lynn with the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye during a visit to Aloha Air Cargo, July 2008

“I’ve been to Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and China, and at every stop, I learned something new, tasted a local dish, and shopped where the locals shop,” she said. “It will take me the rest of my life to catch up with my parents’ list of travels and the places that they have visited. Earlier this year, I checked off New Zealand.  My mom and I took a 14-day cruise that departed from Sydney, Australia then went on to New Zealand. In the distant future, upon retirement, I want travel more, go to Paris, Japan in the winter, and see the autumn leaves in New England.”

In Tanaka’s darkest moments, she said joyous memories of days gone by were almost as important to her recovery as anticipating the future. One of her favorite memories is visiting her sister near Seattle one snowy January a few years ago.

“The power was out so we ate crackers and cheese in the dark,” Tanaka recalled. “We couldn’t sleep, so we decided to head out for a hot meal. It was an experience I’ll never forget, as the car slid on the roads, and we went sloshing through the wet snow to get to the door of the restaurant, and being so cold, but we laughed and laughed through it all.”