UCLA has responded to the call for aid in the two weeks after a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan. Here’s how three members of the UCLA community are participating in the effort to cure and rebuild.
Kozue Shimabukuro was in Los Angeles preparing to leave for a vacation in Japan the night the earthquake and tsunami hit. The Okinawa native’s flight was supposed to take off for her home country the next morning.
As she was packing, she started to receive frantic text messages from friends, asking if her family was safe. Shimabukuro, a critical care pediatrician at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, logged onto the computer and read the news.
An emergency flight through her clinical connections in Japan landed her at a Tokyo airport in the midst of a blackout. She was given a blanket to sleep on and crackers and water for sustenance.
Every three hours, powerful aftershocks shook people in the airport into screams of panic. But Shimabukuro Â”“ trained to confront crises ÂÂ”“ remained calm. After 36 hours without sleep, she told herself to rest, to eat, to drink.
Her focus would soon turn to the reason she was now there ““ the children of Japan.
Shimabukuro’s unit at Mattel Hospital sees the most desperate cases: children crushed in car crashes or critically ill, with lives in the hands of machine ventilation or dialysis bags.
But she said her work in Japan so far has been the hardest she has ever done. Shimabukuro and her clinical colleagues walk the streets of ruined cities daily, surrounded by nothing but splintered wood and broken beds. Orphaned children ask her for their parents.
At first the Japanese government had told Shimabukuro that she could not practice medicine in the country without a Japanese license. It took a letter from her colleagues at UCLA to confirm that she was qualified.
Then her team visited every single evacuation room in the region.
It was tedious work, but Shimabukuro was able to distribute her cellphone number to disaster teams.
Since then, she has traveled to answer the calls. Her team, she said, is the only pediatric unit in the entire north region.
The team is based in the city of Yamada, a fishing town a little more than 350 miles away from Tokyo that was hit hard by the tsunami. There, a gymnasium and classrooms in an evacuated school serve as a makeshift clinic.
In the second week after the disaster, Shimabukuro has started to see increasing cases of asthma and allergies. An explosion had burned down a third of the city she was headed to and clouded the air with smoke and dust particles, which children inhaled.
Constant snowfall has exacerbated health concerns. Without heaters at evacuation sites, children are more susceptible to illness.
Many of the children are simply scared.
“They ask, “˜Am I going to be OK, am I going to die?’” Shimabukuro said. “There is so much death around them.”
No, you’re not going to die, she tells them. Then, with origami, she tries to make them smile.
Shimabukuro said those who want to support pediatric clinical care and orphaned children in Japan can donate through UNICEF or the Japanese Society of Pediatric Emergency Medicine website.
After radiation concerns delayed his entrance into Japan, civil and environmental engineering professor Jonathan Stewart received the go-ahead from Japanese authorities last week to analyze structural damage caused by the quake.
Stewart is joining four other American engineers in his work. He has visited natural disaster sites around in the world since 1989, including Chile, Turkey, India, Taiwan and Greece.
The sophistication of Japan’s engineering, however, sets the country apart from other earthquake sites, Stewart said.
“The structures were designed by people with similar expertise to what we have in California,” he said.
If well-engineered buildings still collapse after an earthquake, it is clear that there are deficiencies in the designs, Stewart said.
His job is to locate where the inadequacies lie and analyze them thoroughly.
The team will not be inspecting buildings affected by the tsunami because these buildings have been filled with silt, which has made the foundations inaccessible, Stewart said. They will instead study harbors and other port facilities to examine the combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami.
The public health worker
One visiting professor immediately returned to Japan in the wake of the destruction to re-assume his role as the president of a disaster relief nonprofit organization.
Tomohide Atsumi, part of the community health sciences department in the School of Public Health, leads the Nippon Volunteer Network Active in Disaster (NVNAD), a group that formed after the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan and is involved in volunteering and relief efforts during natural disasters. Atsumi was not available for comment, but an email to students and colleagues detailed the nature of his work in the coming weeks.
“(The group) will dispatch an advance team (including me) to Aomori prefecture next week,” Atsumi wrote. “We may set up (or join an already established) a volunteer center there and send groups of volunteers from Nishinomiya/Kobe later.”
In addition to on-the-ground efforts in the affected areas, the group will assist in the movement of those displaced by the disaster and will collect money for the organization’s efforts throughout Japan.
Atsumi and his group will not be involved in any capacity with efforts in areas affected by nuclear radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant because of health concerns, according to the email.
The relief organization Atsumi works with is survivor-oriented and uses the funds collected from both domestic and international donors toward helping survivors of disasters in the short and long term.