By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
A team of physicians from Hiroshima visits Southern California every other year to examine local hibakusha — survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This year, in addition to the 1945 atomic bombings, the team talked about the new victims of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
During a press conference June 17 at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrrance, Deborah Fehn, director of business development, said that the biennial program, which began in 1977, is “as timely today as when it began more than 30 years ago,” especially in light of “the world’s attention to recent radiation issues affecting Japan as a result of the devastating earthquake and tsunami.”
The checkups, which were held June 18 and 19 at the Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Institute, “have profound meaning in terms of research on cumulative long-term radiation effects,” Fehn said.
Liz Dunne, the medical center’s chief executive, said she felt “privileged and honored” to help with the 11-member team’s “important mission.”
The visits have been facilitated by Dr. Fred Sakurai, medical director of the Ningen Dock Center at Little Company of Mary and president of the Japanese Community Hospital Association. He recalled that when the examinations started 34 years ago, “since Hiroshima physicians could not legally practice medicine in the United States, JCHA obtained permission from the California Board of Medical Examiners so that the team could perform examinations … under the supervision of California licensed physicians.”
The examinations were held for many years at City View Hospital and St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, and have been hosted by Little Company of Mary since 2007. The medical teams also visit San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu.
Sakurai said he has a personal connection — his brother, who was serving in the Japanese military, “was sent to Hiroshima for rescue operations one day after the atomic bomb was dropped. He was exposed to radiation and many years later was diagnosed with three cancers.”
Dr. Makoto Matsumura, team leader of the 18th medical mission, introduced the doctors and staff members representing such institutions as Hiroshima General Hospital, the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Casualty Council, and the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. One team member represented the Nagasaki prefectural government.
Matsumura thanked the American public for its assistance after the earthquake and tsunami, including rescue and relief work by the U.S. military and donations of more than $120 million to the Red Cross. “Supported by many countries around the world, including the United States, our entire nation are currently exerting our utmost to reconstruct the affected area,” he said.
“In addition, a substantial amount of relief money ($25,000) was offered by Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center to the Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association, which our president, Dr. (Shizuteru) Usui, handed in person to Gov. (Hidehiko) Yuzaki of Hiroshima Prefecture the other day,” said Matsumura, who presented a certificate of gratitude to Dunne.
Matsumura, who also led the 2009 medical team, said there are 1,161 hibakusha living in 34 states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada, including 739 in California, and that their average age is over 80. A total of 6,391 people have been examined in the four cities, peaking in 1993 with 549; however, the number has been decreasing, with 394 people examined in 2009. About 130 were examined this past weekend and this year’s total is expected to be around 400.
“The biggest health problem for these aging hibakusha is the rising incidence of cancer,” said Matsumura. “The Radiation Effects Research Foundation predicts that the cancer incidence of A-bomb survivors will hit a peak in 2010 to 2015, exactly at this present moment, which gives us all the more reason to stress the importance of cancer-related measures for them.”
According to Matsumura, the hibakusha’s cancer rate more than doubled from 5 percent in 1989 to 11 percent in 1999, then increased four times to 22 percent in 2009. The top three types were breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer. In 2009, eight of 70 cancer patients had multiple cancers. He cautioned that the rates may be higher because the study does not include those who have died or those who have yet to be examined.
“We will continue this medical examination program as long as the American A-bomb survivors are waiting for us. Your homeland, Japan, will never forget you.”
Kaz Suyeishi, president of the American Society of Hiroshima Nagasaki A-bomb Survivors (ASA), formerly known as Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors in the USA, has also been instrumental in coordinating the visits. Born in Pasadena and raised in Hiroshima, she was 19 when the bomb was dropped. As an adult living in the U.S., she had difficulty getting health insurance. “All the insurance companies refuse, so 100 percent you have to pay cash. That’s a large amount of money — no choice.”
When she was attending a fashion school in Hawaii, a Caucasian man confronted Suyeishi and accused her of bombing Pearl Harbor. She said the trauma caused her to have nightmares and to develop black-and-blue marks all over her body.
In addition to providing free checkups, Suyeishi said the visits are important because the doctors speak Japanese and understand both the physical and emotional problems that survivors face.
Saying that the word “hibakusha” should be used internationally, just like “tsunami,” Suyeishi asked the audience to join her in reciting, “No more Hiroshima. No more Nagasaki. No more hibakusha. No more any war.”
Junji Sarashina, vice president and secretary of ASA, was born in Hawaii and was 16 when he survived the Hiroshima bombing. Joking that the doctors “came all the way from Japan to check my prostate,” he said on a more serious note that many hibakusha “still suffer from cancer, leukemia and old-age problems … I had knee replacement surgery recently. So old age and the radiation effects are causing a lot of problems for survivors.”
When he speaks at schools, Sarashina tells students that the blast was “just like an 18-wheeler dropped on my head.” Although he wasn’t physically scarred, he said, the memories — such as seeing hundreds of people die after jumping into the river to escape the flames — “will never go away.” But he continues to talk about it because “soon nobody’s going to remember the A-bomb experience.”
Although many survivors worry that their ailments will be passed on to their children and grandchildren, Matsumura, who is himself a “second-generation hibakusha,” said that many of them have been examined and no significant problems have been found.
From Hiroshima to Fukushima
Dr. Akihiko Suyama of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation said that he, Matsumura and other experts have examined tsunami victims to investigate “the cancer risk among those exposed to the nuclear power plant’s radiation … We’re not sure what will happen to those people regarding cancer risk. Anyhow, it is necessary to conduct … an epidemiological study.”
Suyama added, “Those levels are so much lower compared to atomic-bomb radiation exposure … so I think there is no problem.”
While the radiation from the bombs actually affected the victims’ DNA, the long-term, low-level exposure at Fukushima “might not affect the DNA, according to scientific findings … Anyhow, the radiation effect is very different,” Suyama said.
At the same time, he stressed, “Even if you are exposed to low-level radiation, you must not smoke, because if you smoke, (the danger of) lung cancer is much higher.”
The 63 people examined on June 18 included Sachiye Osa, who survived the Hiroshima bombing at the age of 20. Accompanied by her brother and sister, who were also exposed to radiation, she said that she regularly participates in the examinations and so far has been given a clean bill of health.
The medical visit was also supported by Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles County Medical Association.