Hiroshima Doctors Examine Local Hibakusha

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Kaz Suyeishi (center), president of the American Society of Hiroshima-Nagasaki A-bomb Survivors, introduces Michael Hunn (left), chief executive of Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, to doctors and staff members from Hiroshima. At right is Dr. Jitsuro Yanagida of the Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association, leader of the medical team.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

For the 19th time, a medical team from Japan came to Southern California over the weekend to examine local residents who survived the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Junji Sarashina recounts his experiences as a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic blast. At left is Dr. Fred Sakurai of Ningen Dock.

These free examinations have been held every other year since 1977. The medical team also sees hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) in San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu.

Representatives of Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, which hosted the L.A.-area examinations, along with Hiroshima survivors and members of the medical team, spoke with reporters on Friday.

Michael Hunn, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center chief executive and senior vice president/chief executive of Providence Health and Services’ California region, said, “The day that the bombs were dropped, there were many that were affected, there were many that died, and there was untold suffering in the aftermath … Many have perished over the years, and here in Los Angeles County and surrounding areas there are over 100 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki …

“It is both a privilege and an honor for us at Providence Health System to host this medical team as they undertake their work over the next two days to conduct medical examinations on those survivors. We do this in concert with the government of Japan … with the Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association … with HICARE (Hiroshima International Council for Health Care of the Radiation-exposed) … These physicians have dedicated their lives to this incredible work.”

These biennial visits are also an opportunity for the survivors “to talk about how things have gone over the last two years,” Hunn added. “It has truly been a social gathering of those that have been united in a commonality of something that in the beginning was most horrible and should never ever happen again.”

Many of the American hibakusha are Kibei Nisei — born in the U.S. but educated in Japan — who were stranded in Japan when the war broke out; others are postwar Japanese immigrants.

Dr. Fred Sakurai, medical director of  Providence’s Ningen Dock Center, has been working for 36 years to ensure that hibakusha living in the U.S. can get the same kind of medical treatment as their counterparts in Japan. Ningen Dock, which was established in 1992 to serve Japanese-based employers and Japanese individuals, helps to facilitate the medical visits.

Starting this year, Sakurai said, local hibakusha can request “additional tests like stomach and lung cancer screenings at Japanese government-approved centers such as our medical center here,” Sakurai said. “This means early detection, early treatment of cancer.”

Sakurai’s brother served in the Japanese military during World War II and was part of a rescue team sent to Hiroshima the day after the bombing, unaware that they were being exposed to deadly radiation. “He suffered from three different kinds of cancer since then, bladder cancer, rectal cancer, stomach cancer,” Sakurai said. “I cannot treat him from here in America, but by supporting A-bomb survivors’ physicals, I feel like I’m treating my brother in some indirect way.”

Members of the medical team took photos during the press conference, which was held in the chapel of Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center.

The team leader is Dr. Jitsuro Yanagida, a board member of HPMA and chief executive secretary of HICARE. He is also a hibaku-nisei or second-generation hibakusha. His parents, grandparents and uncle survived the bombing. His uncle was one of only two out of 100 students at his school to survive, but he died two years later from leukemia.

“My parents and grandparents have already died … Three of them died of cancers and one of them died of hematological disorder,” Yanagida said. “That was many, many years ago, so I don’t know the diagnosis … I don’t know if they died of A-bomb (radiation) or not, but there is some possibility.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, hibakusha in the U.S. lobbied the federal government for medical assistance, but were turned down. The Japanese government was initially resistant as well, but finally the HPMA agreed to help. One obstacle was the fact that Japanese doctors were not licensed to practice medicine in the U.S., but the L.A. County Medical Association was able to arrange “a supplemental regulation to the law … allowing Japanese doctors to perform medical activity under this kind of special situation,” Yanagida said.

Noting that the survivors “are getting older and older,” he said that there is general agreement that “health checkups should be not every other year, but every year,” and he is hopeful that this can be implemented next year.

If there is even one hibakusha left in the U.S. who wants to be examined, HPMA would like to help, Yanagida said.

Kaz Suyeishi, president of the American Society of Hiroshima-Nagasaki A-bomb Survivors, recalled that the death and destruction of Aug. 6, 1945 began with a beautiful sight — a lone B-29 bomber in the summer sky. To her, it looked like an angel.

She expressed thanks to those in the U.S. and Japan who made it possible to send “doctors who speak Hiroshima-ben (dialect) and understand hibakusha’s emotional, psychological and physical problems … to come and examine us.”

Now actively involved in peace education, Suyeishi said the most important thing is that “people love each other.”

Like Suyeishi, Junji Sarashina helps facilitate the exams and is also a patient. He was 16 years old when he survived the Hiroshima blast despite being only two miles from the hypocenter. He described the scene at a Red Cross hospital the next day: “Maybe 5,000 people lying on the ground … half of them are dead. We could hardly get any medical help … because the doctors were also the victims, the nurses were also hurt.”

Sarashina tried to help other survivors who were in worse shape than him. “For some reason they always asked for water. Fortunately, water was trickling from the pipe, so we gave them a cup of water. A few minutes later, they just perished. Blankets, we peeled them off the dead and provided the blankets to the survivors … No electricity, no transportation … The bridges are broken. If not, the bridges are packed with dead people or wounded people.”

The experience led to his belief that “we must have peace — that is the only answer.”

Photos by J.K.  YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

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