“They just kept waiting and waiting and waiting for their moms to come and pick them up,” said Shimabukuro, choking back tears as she struggled to tell a room full of listeners about her experience in the disaster zone. She returned from Japan to complete her fellowhip in pediatric critical care at UCLA, and gave her heartbreaking presentation at UCLA’s Gonda Research Facility Tuesday, April 26, to give a voice to the tsunami orphans still in need of help.
“We told the children that somebody cares still, somebody remembers them, somebody is going to make sure their future is all right,” said Shimabukuro. “Please don’t let us be wrong.”
“The tsunami hit Japan,” an airline worker explained to her. “Tokyo is in blackout.”
Shimabukuro dialed phone numbers again and again, finally getting through to a friend in Japan. “Get on the plane,” the friend said. “We need your help.”
She arranged an emergency flight and hours later was in the air. Then panic set in. Japan was famously well-prepared for quakes – what could have happened to plunge Tokyo into blackout, she wondered? At her presentation on Tuesday, she looked around the room at the familiar faces of her colleagues. “A couple of you probably got my frantic phone calls saying, ‘I’m leaving for Japan soon. I’m freaked out. I don’t want to go, but I have to.’”
Where are the children?
“Ten to 20 percent of the population were kids … 10 to 20 percent of the transports should have been pediatric patients,” she said. “We asked, ‘Where are they?’ … The government’s answer was, ‘We don’t know.’”
Meanwhile, other disaster response teams already in the field had no pediatricians, she said. “They told me, ‘We pray that kids don’t come to us … because we won’t know what to do,’” she said. “CPR, procedures, drug doses, everything is different with kids.” Doctors who did encounter children told her they froze up.
Embarking into chaos
“It was hell,” she said.
Hospitals were in chaos, and doctors were working five-day shifts without sleep. Her team visited schools and shelters where people had hung fliers with pictures of lost friends, family and children, pleading for any information, even if their loved ones were found dead. The tsunami had strewn building debris with stuffed animals and children’s school things.
They also found areas where clean-up teams had tagged houses as empty – the owners presumed dead – and had tried to clear away the remnants of lost lives. But over and over, Shimabukuro saw that the workers had intentionally left behind small piles of toys, children’s drawings and photographs of happy families, just in case. “This one is a drawing from a kid to a daddy,” she said, showing a picture. “They didn’t have the heart to throw it away because they were hoping maybe the people in these houses are still alive.”
Because the disaster occurred in the middle of the afternoon when parents were at work and children were in school or walking home, families everywhere were separated, Shimabukuro said. When her team finally did find refugee centers with children, the children were inevitably alone. “No one knew whom they belonged to.”
Most of the children showed signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. Even those who were uninjured asked daily whether they were going to die, had trouble sleeping and avoided eye contact. Shimabukuro recalled children who sat alone, saying, “My mom is coming, my mom is coming.”
“It’s a dying story”
When Shimabukuro returned to the United States after three weeks in Japan, she was drained but determined to rally help for the people she left behind. The tsunami orphans still need help: pediatricians need medicine for children, Japan needs money to rebuild schools and educate new teachers, and much more, she said. But after completing one interview with a reporter, she was told the story might not run at all, because it was becoming old news.
“It’s a dying story,” the reporter had told her. Recalling the conversation, Shimbukuro said in a quavering voice, “If they could only see these kids’ eyes when they cry every time an aftershock hits; when innocently they tell me that they are waiting for father to come back from the boat, he has just gone out fishing; if they could see those little boy’s eyes saying ‘School is starting soon, they promised me,’ they would not have said this is a dying story.”
You can read previous article on Dr. Shimabukuro here, here and here. Dr. Shimabukuro provided the following information and recommended donating to these charities for the biggest impact:
Japanese Society of Emergency Pediatrics Special Committee for the Japan Earthquake
Account name: The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Ltd.
Swift Code: BOTKJPJT
Account Branch and Address:
1-10-6 Tsukiji Chuo-ku
Tokyo, Japan 104-0045
Beneficiary’s Account Number: 025-0078003
Beneficiary’s Name: Special Committee for the East Japan Earthquake, Japanese Society of Pediatrics.
American Academy of Pediatrics: Direct your donation to the Japanese Children’s Disaster Relief Fund