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Japan earthquake medical mission takes physician home

Dr. Keiko Asao, a University of Michigan endocrinology fellow, joins Tokushu-kai Medical Assistance Team on earthquake relief mission

The Tokushu-kai Medical Assistance Team cares for patients in a clinic at Japan's Hashikami Junior High School. Download High Resolution Image

The March 11 Japan earthquake moved Keiko Asao to return home to join the humanitarian effort to help earthquake victims.

During her four-day medical mission, Asao, an endocrinology fellow at the University of Michigan Health System, saw vulnerable people living under severe conditions.

Something as benign as a cold or flu required isolation from others living in the cramped emergency shelter at Hashikami Junior High School in Kesennuma City.

“There was risk of infection from any trauma victims suffered, but flu was a great concern also among the 700 people, many of them elderly, living in very close conditions,” says Asao, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., a native of Japan who earned her medical degree at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, the city hit by the earthquake.

Asao’s trip was planned by the Tokushu-kai Medical Assistance Team and took her to northeast Japan March 28-31. Immediately after the quake, the shelter was home to 1,200 people.

Asao translated the team’s orientation instructions given after landing in Tokyo: “It is your mission to ease even a little the residents who are exhausted by their prolonged lives at shelters (and) the pain of the health care providers who are about to burn out with sleepless duty.”

Dozens of patients visited the Hashikami clinic each day, and medical teams made house calls and checked on people living in their cars.

Patients were treated for diabetes, a disease that’s difficult to manage without a regular food supply.

Lack of water contributed to health complications too. A woman in her 80s suffered a clogged gastric tube because her family did not have water to supplement her nutrition formula. During a follow-up visit, the medical team provided two cases of bottled water to the woman and her husband.

“I’ve had a difficult time going back to normal life,” says Asao who also has a public health degree. “I think about what I could have done and what more I could be doing to help them. The country needs more than temporary relief, but a long term plan for rebuilding its communities, and health care system.”

As of April 15, the earthquake and tsunami killed 13,591 people, while 14,497 people are listed as missing. It was the fourth strongest earthquake on record and the disasters resulted in extensive and severe structural damage.

But conditions were improving before Asao’s return to the United States. More pharmacies were opening and able to provide needed medicines. Classes were expected to resume April 22.

Close ties in the community will help, but Asao says support from mental health care professionals will be critical as people begin to put their lives back together. About 138,000 people continue to live in shelters.

“A 40-year-old woman with hypertension presented to our visiting medical team,” Asao recalls. “She said the cold she had was getting better and she had enough medicine for two weeks. When we asked if there was anything else we could do to help her, she said ‘I am OK. I will keep up,’ but she had tears in her eyes.”

Also in April, Tae-Hwa Chun, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of internal medicine in the Division of Metabolism Endocrinology and Diabetes, went to Shizukawa elementary school, one of the major evacuee shelters in Minami Sanriku-cho, Miyagi, Japan. His relief trip was organized by the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia.

“When I got there, norovirus gastroenteritis was wide-pread as they could not wash hands with running water while sharing bathrooms without a sanitation system,” he says.

“On the first day, I helped Israel medical team that set up a well-equipped clinic next to the largest shelter of Minami Sanriku-cho, located at the Bayside Arena,” Chun says. “From the second day, I engaged in the outpatient clinic at Shizukawa elementary school as well as the management of norovirus patients isolated in the different class rooms in an effort to separate the infected from healthy evacuees.”

The temporary outpatient clinic was established in the annex of school gymnasium where 400 people sought shelter.

“Dr. Sasahara, a local doctor who used to practice in the region and whose clinic was destroyed by the tsumani, worked long hours in the clinic with doctors of AMDA. Nurses and pharmacists who used to work at the public Shizukawa hospital helped the clinic while AMDA nurses took care of norovirus patients,” says Chun who took care of clinic patients April 4-8 but had hoped to stay longer to help evacuees.

“They were very patient and kept their hope to rebuild their hometown, but their lives need to be eased as soon as possible by the accelerated effort of the government and continuous help from people around the globe,” says Chun.

As part of its service mission, the University of Michigan Health System has sent supplies to the earthquake-ravaged region. World Medical Relief helped coordinate the relief effort that included shipping medical supplies, bottled water, diapers and infant formula donated by UMHS, and its faculty and staff.

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Written by Shantell M. Kirkendoll

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