At Sendai Hospitals, Victims Go Without Painkillers and Food
A patiant from the earthquake is carried to the Tohoku University Hostal in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, Japan. Source: Tohoku University via Bloomberg
March 17 (Bloomberg) — Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer of Pacific Investment Management Co., discusses the potenial impact of last week’s 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan on the U.S. and global economies. El-Erian speaks from Newport Beach, California, with Margaret Brennan on Bloomberg Television’s “InBusiness.” (Source: Bloomberg)
Katsutoshi Furukawa, a 50-year-old neurologist. Source: Tohoku University via Bloomberg
Two surgical operations were under way at Tohoku University Hospital in the city of Sendai on March 11 when Japan’s strongest earthquake ever cut off the power. One was stopped and the patient stitched up. The other was completed with in-house power generation.
In the following days, cancer patients were sent home because there was no medication for their chemotherapy. More than 1,000 patients lived for four days on bread, canned corned beef and dried biscuits, said Mio Onodera, a 25-year-old nurse. There are no painkillers and intravenous tubes are being reused.
“We are doing things I can’t even think of in normal times,” Onodera said in a phone interview from Sendai. “The hardest thing is to ask patients to put up with the pain.”
At the hospital in this coastal city of about 1 million, employees who lost family members care for elderly patients with dedication, said Katsutoshi Furukawa, a 50-year-old neurologist. At Suzuki Memorial Hospital nearby, all division heads are sleeping on-site and no one has showered for six days, said nursing-division chief Katy Yagihashi, 53.
The hospitals of the Sendai region are on the front lines of Japan’s gravest crisis since World War II. As interviews with six medical professionals in the region show, they are being stressed as never before.
Doctors and nurses must treat injured quake victims — though there are few of them — as well as managing their ongoing caseload, scrounging food and water for employees and patients and handling the psychological toll of being 96 kilometers (60 miles) from a possible nuclear meltdown.
“Depending on the weather, staff are told to stand by at home because of the radiation risks,” said Mika Chiba, 42, a nurse at Suzuki Memorial Hospital. “It rained yesterday and we were told to keep from being exposed to rain. But we have to walk or bike to work because we don’t have gas for our cars.”
The patients show great fortitude, said Onodera of Tohoku Hospital. Some drink as little water as possible to preserve scarce supplies. A cancer patient whose scheduled operation was postponed asked to leave the hospital because he felt guilty occupying a bed. Though he was from a town some distance away, he left without anyone to pick him up, she said.
The quake victims display a variety of symptoms. The day after the seism, Onodera cared for patients with carbon monoxide poisoning from indoor coal fires because the power was off. The following day, patients in cardiac arrest were brought to the emergency room. And a young psychiatric patient had to be treated with sedatives because she was afraid helicopters would fall on her, Furukawa said.
Other quake victims don’t talk about their experiences. A woman at Tohoku who lost her son and daughter-in-law and was rescued from the wreckage of her building lies silently on her bed, Onodera said. She answers questions but says nothing except, while watching television, “That’s terrible.”
Many professionals are working without knowing whether their families are safe, although Furukawa, who is also an assistant professor at Tohoku University, was able to contact his wife and son in Sendai before mobile and landline service stopped entirely. Working at another hospital outside Sendai, he couldn’t go home for two days because roads around the hospital were covered by sea water.
At that, he was lucky. Some of the hospital’s staff members have siblings and parents who live in coastal areas struck by the tsunami, where thousands are said to be missing, he said.
“They really want to go home, but there’s no way to communicate because phones are dead and no ways of getting there,” he said. “All they hear and see is devastating stories and scenes from news. They all have heartbreaking looks, while handling their duties very professionally.”
One colleague, he said, is from Kesennuma, a city that was hit by the tsunami and then burned.
“She has not been able to contact her family and siblings,” Furukawa said. “While knowing the chances of them surviving are very unlikely, she attends her patients. She gives such kind words to the elderly ones. I get a catch in my throat looking at her.”
While power and water are slowly being restored in the region, the hospital personnel are forgoing bathing to make more water available for patients.
“It’s been six days but I haven’t even washed my face or hair, or showered,” said Yagihashi at Suzuki Memorial. “We are starting to smell. Staff people are cleaning their patients with disposable wet wipes.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kanoko Matsuyama in Tokyo firstname.lastname@example.org;