Rafu staff writer
This story was originally published Dec. 6, 2008.
In the first week of November, as many of us began the arduous task of arranging our Thanksgiving plans, Dr. Tomoko Kurokawa was on a plane to Laos in southeast Asia, with a more pressing agenda.
She was going to help save lives.
The 36-year-old Los Angeles native is a family practice physician at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Panorama City, but long before earning her medical degree from UCLA in 1999, has been volunteering to help anyone in need of health care, around the world.
“It’s important to understand that the majority of the world’s people are starving or involved in some kind of internal conflict and not living the kind of privileged life we enjoy here in the United States,” Dr. Kurokawa said in Oct. 22. She was taking part in the tour of a traveling “refugee camp” at Griffith Park, an educational exhibit organized by the Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders. In 2006, she joined the group, more commonly known by its French acronym MSF, for a mission to the west African nation of Liberia.
The exhibit at Griffith Park featured structures that included a health clinic, a cholera treatment facility, a nutrition station and emergency housing used around the world by MSF for refugees and victims of internal conflict and famine. Dr. Kurokawa was one of several aid workers who guided visitors and students and explained how these displaced people face the daily challenge of securing the most basic needs required to survive, and how in our relative comfort, we are often unaware of the plight of some 42 million people around the globe.
“When you only watch local news, you only know what’s going on in your city or in the United States,” she explained. “Unless you watch the BBC or CNN, you rarely get news from what’s happening out in the world, in Africa, Southeast Asia or the Middle East. Right now, were getting a little bit of coverage from Iraq and Afghanistan, only because the United States is involved. How often can someone turn on a TV in the United States and see what’s really going on in Somalia or Sudan or Ethiopia? Rarely, very rarely.”
As she provided details about the housing tents at the exhibit, Dr. Kurokawa explained how refugees are people who have fled their home countries, whereas IDPs–internally displaced people–are those forced from their homes by conflict or natural disasters but have remained in their homelands.
Kurokawa has a simpler term.
“Once you flee your home, you’re homeless, no matter where you go,” she said flatly.
During her seven months in a remote village in Liberia, Dr. Kurokawa worked in a small field hospital that was equipped to handle obstetrics and most cases of tuberculosis. She began treating patients with diseases such as malaria and cholera, as well as those suffering from respiratory diseases and malnutrition.
“The first steps include vaccinating all young children from measles, because it spreads easily and can kill,” she explained. “Other vaccination programs can follow when situations begin to stabilize.”
Dr. Kurokawa said she has seen serious, even fatal cases of diseases that are commonly regarded as things of the past in the U.S.
“When I was in Liberia, I actually treated a few patients who had tetanus, the actual tetanus disease, which I have never seen in the United States. I had a child die of rabies, after being bitten by a dog.”
After seeing several patients infected with HIV, she quickly recognized the region’s need for a comprehensive HIV/AIDS treatment program.
Dr. Kurokawa then organized the first HIV program in the area, in the tiny village located near the borders of Guinea and Sierra Leone. She trained local medical staff how to perform HIV tests, the proper use of anti-retroviral medicines, and helped them to set up counseling facilities for patients and families. She also stressed the importance of testing all pregnant women for HIV and instructed local obstetrics workers on treatments for those mothers carrying the virus.
Thousands of doctors, pharmacists, nurses, midwives, logisticians and administrative staff are working with MSF on any given day, in nearly 60 countries, with most of the work concentrated in six nations: Colombia, Sudan, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia. Dr. Kurokawa said midwives are an especially crucial part of the operations.
“In this country we take for granted conscientious prenatal care. You get your ultrasound, you take your vitamins, when the baby comes, someone is at the hospital to deliver it in clean conditions,” she said. “Out in places like Africa, especially in refugee camps, you may never have seen a professional healthcare provider during your entire pregnancy and you may have to have a baby in a tent like this or on the ground, in the most unsanitary conditions.”
She said that during her mission in Liberia, she saw many stillbirths.
Amid the often desperate atmosphere of the village, Dr. Kurokawa said there were a great many positive developments that resulted from the work of the MSF staff.
“I recall this one 6-year-old child from Sierra Leone who was brought to the hospital by his parents,” she recalled in a statement released by MSF. “First, there was no hospital near where they lived, so they walked across the border to our hospital. He had a fever and was very underweight. He looked like he was going to die any day. I diagnosed him with extraperitoneal TB in the field hospital, which had no x-ray machine or ultrasound and limited supplies. I started him with TB treatment and within a month he was back to a normal weight. He was able to
leave the hospital to return home in a very healthy condition. Every month the family brought him back for follow-ups and his next month’s supply of TB medications. I felt great joy to see his health restored. It was precious to see him happy and with a big smile. That is what MSF is all about–saving lives. This is what made my mission worthwhile.”
What she didn’t care for, on the other hand, was the food.
“Being raised in Los Angeles and Tokyo, you’re exposed to the most gourmet, delicious food in the world, so being in the middle of the African bush, you don’t get any of that,” she said, describing the typical meal of rice, beans, local vegetables–and something else.
“I’m sure I’ve eaten plenty of bugs. After a while, you see bugs in your rice, but you don’t think twice about it. It’s a condiment.”
As accomplished as she is within her profession, Dr. Kurokawa could easily be living a life of comfort. A doctor’s income can well provide for a large house, nice car, golf once or twice a week. So why would someone with experience, youth and vitality subject herself to deplorable conditions in often hostile–and occasionally deadly–environments in a foreign land?
“I think most doctors go into the field for truly altruistic reasons, because we want to help people,” she replied. “We want to be there to help people feel better, whether it’s for physical health or for mental health. There could have been some trigger–maybe someone in the family was a doctor or a family member was sick and got better–there’s usually some kind of motivation on a personal level.”
Indeed, Dr. Kurokawa comes from a family of doctors. Though she said that in her rebellious youth, she tried to avoid heading toward the profession, she realized before finishing her undergraduate work at Harvard that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine.
Between the ages of 11 and 18, she lived with her family in Tokyo. Her Catholic high school there was deeply involved with volunteering at local hospitals and she participated in UNICEF programs in Japan.
She revealed that her family was adamantly opposed–to put it mildly–to her joining MSF.
“I think most of my physician peers dream of doing this type of work, but either they have to pay off school loans or they have families and kids and simply cannot leave for six months or a year,” she said. “The best part of it is being in the field and knowing that perhaps you’ve saved a child from death, or that someone left the hospital smiling. It’s seeing patients being able to go home and be with their families rather than dying.”
MSF relies solely on donations, with no affiliation with any government or religious organization, and Dr. Kurokawa sees her stateside mission as one of helping to spread awareness and gain support.
“It’s really important that people donate and believe in us. It can be small amounts like 10 or 50 dollars, it doesn’t have to be thousands. Small amounts from caring people around the world accumulate and it really helps.”
At home, Dr. Kurokawa fills her time away from the hospital with hula dancing and yoga. She volunteers at the Los Angeles Free Clinic and at Camp Laurel, for children living with HIV. While her trip to Southeast Asia last month was for an organization other than MSF, her cause was the same: to provide care, unconditionally, unwaveringly.
At this time of year when “giving” is often twisted into a marketing tool, I think I recall Bob Hope saying, “If you haven’t any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.”
As someone who gives appears so at ease to give so freely, I asked Dr. Kurokawa if she considers her far-flung missions to be her life’s work.
“Definitely. As long as I’m healthy and able to travel the globe–and not in severe financial debt–I think it’s important to help where help is needed. We only live once. If we can help to save a life, to provide health care to someone who desperately needs it, I think it’s really important.”