Eastern State Hospital lab supervisor gives back to Spokane community in unique way

Leslie Shimabukuro, a clinical laboratory supervisor at Eastern State Hospital, has been a certified volunteer for Spokane County’s Search and Rescue team for eight years. (Courtesy photo)

There is a strong chance you have lost your way and need help getting home if you run into Leslie Shimabukuro away from the Eastern State Hospital campus.

Shimabukuro, the hospital’s clinical laboratory supervisor and a 15-year employee, has been a certified volunteer for Spokane County’s Search and Rescue team for eight years now. Intermountain Search Dogs, the volunteer team made up of owners and dogs she is affiliated with, has been trained to find lost persons and in some instances human remains.

“It’s more than just a hobby,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s kind of a way of life.”

Two weeks ago, Shimabukuro’s “way of life” involved helping train dogs find a “lost” person — herself — in a wooded location near Cheney. She hid under camouflage netting for three different dogs in training. Each dog got one hour to search a 40-acre area.

For Shimabukuro, her roots in training dogs go back to her childhood. A native of southern Idaho, Shimabukuro’s family moved to north Idaho, and she graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School before going on to earn her degree in bacteriology at the University of Idaho.

She always knew she wanted a career in medicine but comes from a family that had hunting dogs.

It was not until Sept. 11, 2001, when the idea of search and rescue entered Shimabukuro’s mind.

“Watching those search and rescue dogs and their handlers was a moving experience,” she said.

In the process of researching how to begin, through a mutual contact, Shimabukuro came across a trainer online in Colorado that was highly respected for breeding search and rescue canines. Shimabukuro acquired Sky, a yellow lab, from the breeder. As it turned out, Sky’s great-grandfather, Jenner, was used by search and rescue teams on site at the ruins of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan.

Shimabukuro and her dog Sky.

Sky was bred by Ann Wichmann, who helped write the original Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) protocols for disaster dogs.

However, Sky did not become a certified rescue dog.

“She is a lot of dog, as someone described her, and I was a first-time handler,” Shimabukuro said of Sky. “I really feel like I failed her. She deserved a better trainer, but you learn so much from those dogs. I am better now because of her.”

To become SAR certified, volunteers must complete a 12-week academy training that runs from 6 to 10 p.m. on Fridays. SAR teams operate at the direction of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. At least two mock training courses are conducted per year.

“You learn such much about tactics and ways to execute search and rescue efforts with your team members,” she said.

Using what is called “lost-person behavior,” research has been collected over several years to help guide search and rescue efforts of those who are missing.

“Data is collected based on gender, age — even people’s hobbies. There is an entire science that exists behind lost people,” Shimabukuro said.

Most calls for help occur during adverse weather conditions and mostly at night.

“You have to love what you do,” she said. “Even though you are a volunteer, you should train like a professional. You need to be confident in your skills and your team’s ability. Someone’s life is on the line.”

Shimabukuro has never found a missing person herself but has been part of teams that have.

“Even if the missing subject is not in your assigned search area, if you can clear that area so resources can be used elsewhere, that is a success,” she said.

(By Kevin Blocker)