KOZUE SHIMABUKURO, M.D., HAD BEEN PLANNING TO VISIT HER FAMILY IN OKINAWA FOR TWO WEEKS IN MARCH, but the day before she was scheduled to leave, Japan was hit by the largest earthquake in its recorded history. The tsunami that followed devastated parts of the country, killing more than 11,000 people and leaving tens of thousands more still missing and homeless.
Instead of her intended family visit, Dr. Shimabukuro, a critical-care pediatrician at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, switched her plans and, with her family’s blessing and sponsorship from the hospital, volunteered to help with medical relief. “My government believed in me and gave me a scholarship to go study in America. Now it was my turn to believe in Japan,” she says.
When she arrived in the disaster zone, she was unprepared for what she encountered. “All the towns for 500 kilometers along the coast were destroyed,” Dr. Shimabukuro says. “It was a nightmare. You see a ship on a four-story building, if there is a building left. Trains thrown into mountains. Railroads pulled apart. No signs of civilization.”
On top of the destruction she witnessed, the temperature was freezing, adding to the misery of the disaster victims. And in her haste to leave, Dr. Shimabukuro packed only flip-flops and summer clothes; she had to borrow and buy warm clothing when she arrived.
Although a large team of physicians had been assembled for relief work, Dr. Shimabukuro and another doctor were the only pediatricians sent into the disaster zones, she says. The devastation she saw in hard-hit Iwate and Miyagi prefectures left her speechless. “It looked like the end of the world,” she says. “It was so much worse than what you see on TV .”
Traveling by car and sometimes by foot, she and her colleague visited up to five official evacuation centers every day, each serving as shelter to about 150 children. They also found several unofficial evacuation centers, usually a large home containing 20 to 50 children who had no place else to stay.
“They were cut off from the world with no cell phone, no electricity, and no one even knowing where they were,” says Dr. Shimabukuro, who returned to Los Angeles on April 1, after three weeks in Japan. “They were all helping each other, living off boiled river water – just surviving on whatever was there at the house.”
The earthquake and tsunami was an “all or nothing” kind of disaster, Dr. Shimabukuro says. “You either died or were wholly fine. If you survived, you happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Although she treated many children for asthma, pneumonia and skin infections, most of her young patients suffered more from psychological trauma than from any physical injuries, she says.
“Some of the kids would cry and cry, and then some showed no emotion at all,” Dr. Shimabukuro says. “At nighttime, kids were having trouble sleeping or having nightmares, sobbing, missing their parents, calling for mom, or asking when mom would return.”
Because of her slight physique, many of her young patients didn’t believe she is a doctor, and referred to her as “big sister” or “Kozue,” she says. Every evacuation center had at least one or two children under the care of neighbors or friends because family members were missing. Dr. Shimabukuro played games and made origami with children trying to cope with their loss and encouraged the older ones to be as self-sufficient as possible so they wouldn’t feel so helpless.
When she got back to the U.S., Dr. Shimabukuro couldn’t shake what she had seen, and she found herself feeling guilty for being able to eat whatever she wanted, wear clean clothes and enjoy the California sunshine. “I had a hard time,” she says. “I kept remembering all the kids. I felt like I had abandoned my people.”
Then a UCLA colleague told her: “It’s okay to go back to normal.” It was the same advice she had given a distressed teenager who was living in one of the evacuation centers.
“That’s when I decided I’m going to focus on things I can do from here,” like raising awareness about the scope of the devastation and raising money to help transport people with medical needs to functioning hospitals, Dr. Shimabukuro says.
And she holds on to the good she was able to do while there – not just the medical aid she rendered, but also the hope she helped to restore. “Thank you for coming, Kozue,” one teenage girl told her. “I didn’t think I was allowed to laugh.” – Kim Kowsky
Dr. Kozue Shimabukuro spent three weeks providing medical relief in her native Japan after the earthquake in March. She returned there in April with a disaster-recovery team to continue that work.