HONOLULU - A Naalehu physician fluent in Marshallese is replacing a Big Island member of the state House of Representatives who resigned for personal reasons.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced Friday that he appointed Dr. Richard Creagan to the seat vacated by Denny Coffman. The seat represents Naalehu, Ocean View, Captain Cook, Kealakekua and Kailua-Kona.
Coffman said last month that he planned to spend time with family as his daughter faces a medical issue. The Democrat was first elected in 2008 and served three terms in the Legislature.
Creagan was spending Friday settling into his office at the state Capitol and preparing for next week's start of the legislative session.
"The Big Island needs a new hospital, and that's a very critical thing," he said. "The number one issue will be to support improved health care on the Big Island."
A new hospital will also help address the island's shortage of primary care physicians. "To attract good physicians, you have to have a good facility," he said.
But he also sees himself being able to contribute to other issues. In addition to being a board-certified emergency physician, the new legislator is a farmer. He is vice president of Kiolakaa Mountain Farms, which he founded in 1994 with his wife, Marilyn, a labor and delivery nurse at Kona Community Hospital. They have 100 acres but have cleared only about 20, where they raise cattle, goats, sheep, pigs and chickens and grow coffee, macadamia nuts, avocados, bamboo and citrus. He said it's also a "part-research farm" where he experiments with different kinds of plants.
His background includes human genetics research, so he imagines he'll be able to shed some light on the island's brewing debate over genetically modified organisms. "I understand GMOs," he said. "There's a lot of debate that's not informed by knowledge. I hope I can help both sides of the story understand the issues better - not only as scientist but as a health standpoint."
He first came to Hawaii for Peace Corps training on Molokai for two months, where he learned to speak
Marshallese and how to spear-fish. He then spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Marshall Islands. That language skill, he said, has helped him work with about 1,000 Marshallese in his district.
Creagan moved to Hawaii full-time 23 years ago from California. He has worked at Kona Community Hospital in its emergency department and as vice chief of staff. He helped found and run Hualalai Urgent Care. He's still licensed to practice but now only provides medical care on occasional basis, and for free.
"Richard's diverse experience as a physician, researcher, farmer, Peace Corps volunteer and educator will contribute greatly to his service to the people of Hawaii," Abercrombie said in a statement.
Creagan has a bachelor's degree in biology from Yale University and a medical degree from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. In more recent years, he earned a certificate in plant tissue culture and a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Creagan's appointment is effective immediately for the remainder of Coffman's term.