Leaving for Fukushima

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The beginning of a Pennsylvania medic's chronicle of working in Japan after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and radiation disaster

Submitted: January 12, 2013

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Submitted: January 12, 2013



I had been picturing it dark. As I prepared to leave for the last week, I always failed to visualize daylight in Japan. Disaster sites always scare me more in the dark, even New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina despite the lively French Quarter coming back to life. Maybe it was the idea of radiation, an invisible foe, creating perpetual night in Japan. It all seemed dark in my imagination, like the interminable warm triage shifts at MediShare in Haiti. Today's forecast in the radiation zone: sunny and cold.

I got to spend a few days with my parents, starting with my mother's birthday. She is starting a new job in the health care field and I let her practice taking my blood pressure. It is one of those skills that rests more in the hands than in the head; people do it automatically after their hundredth time or so. I told her she needs to do it as often as possible; she'll have it in no time.

My new training seemed a lot more complex. The next day, I was in Harrisburg doing a crash course in detecting and treating radiation-related illness and injury. I met the other seven people I would be going to Japan with, most older than me. None had been there before and none spoke any Japanese except the commander and me. The commander, Joel, worked for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has an air of tense control about him. I suppose it is what comes from being the guy in the room saying "What if?" for the last fifteen years.

Dad drove me back to New York and I packed my things, including my new personal protective equipment. I had been issued a Kevlar helmet for the first time, despite the fact that this may be the first mission in which I won't need one. I also have a jacket weighing at least fifteen pounds that is apparently effective against ionizing radiation. Considering all the photos of Japanese aid workers wearing paper suits and face masks, I do not know how much of my cargo will actually need to be used. However, I dutifully packed it all and left for Anchorage.

I planned on returning to Alaska at some point since I first went there seven months ago. I love the place dearly - the land, the animals, the people and the spirit. A friend from high school just moved there (and I met her by chance in Denali National Park) so I had a place to stay. I did not think my next visit would be five hours long and be spent entirely at Ted Stevens Airport.

Once I arrived there, I was met by a smiling airman (actually a woman, but the rank still stands) who escorted me to a giant lot off to the side of the massive field (Anchorage hosts the second-largest cargo airport in the world, behind Memphis with its FedEx hub). A cargo plane stood ready to receive the pallets of supplies that would take up two tractor-trailers upon landing in Japan. As I was the only member of our cadre attending this flight, it was my job to check everything. It reminded me of the many times I fit things into our old Ford F-150 pickup truck: camping supplies, things being moved, just about anything. I was always good at fitting things in. Here, I had a refugee shelter ready to go: blankets, cots, medicine, medical supplies, food, water, high-energy biscuits and clothing. In the end, the airman and I had to pull a pallet of blankets apart and jam the contents between other things, as we had too many for the surface area of the inside of the plane. It's a shame I don't live in Green Bay, because I'm a decent packer. Insert groan here.

Someone must not have cleared me properly, as I got two inquiries from ground crew about what I was doing. The second one was about "what the hell" I was doing. I showed my airport pass, which then had to be checked, costing me half an hour. After that, I put on the Ted Stevens Airport cap I had gotten last year. No one bothered me again. I am not sure whether to be happy that I was unmolested afterward or disturbed that a hat could allay suspicion of a security threat.

The flight bumped inexplicably south towards Japan. The skies were perfectly clear and I even managed to get an hour's sleep. Its landing at Aomori, the northernmost city on the island of Honshu, was one of the roughest I'd ever endured in a large plane. There was no explanation as to why. I admit it shook me up a little, as my nerves were already a bit frayed to be going into a disaster that I was completely unacquainted with.

I know Aomori rather well; I spent some time there in 2007 during my journeys to and from Hokkaido. I had never been to its small airport, where we were met by a pair of forklifts and two trucks. As soon as the plane's gate was down, the Japanese crew went to work unloading. They never stopped and the whole job was done in less than an hour. We were promptly on the road south to Sendai. I never got to see Aomori itself, and Morioka, another place I am fondly familiar with, zipped by in my window.

The head of the crew, Masumi, works for Miruyama-san, the father of my ex-girlfriend and an old-fashioned Japanese businessman. He likes me more than his daughter ever did (she has better taste, of course, but I won't let that bother me) and offered to help me with logistics as soon as I told him I was returning to Japan. He hired the trucks and got Masumi to run the operation. I asked how we could reimburse him for the rentals and he said he didn't know what I was talking about. It seems everyone in Japan is doing their part to get their country through this nightmare.

We had hoped to fly into Sendai, but the airport is still receiving rather heavy traffic in relation to its size and the damage it sustained in the earthquake and the tsunami. A U.S. Air Force unit had managed to get it operational so it could receive aid last week, but I wanted to avoid lousing up its operations (I would not have cared if I had known offloading would only take an hour). The Aomori option made more sense if Miruyama-san was helping. As it turned out, my late departure from Anchorage was saved by flying to Aomori, as the rest of the Pennsylvanian team had not yet arrived in Sendai because of flight delays from Tokyo. I had little to do until the rest of the team and the supplies arrived, so I let Masumi show me his native Sendai for the afternoon. I laughed as he insisted I wear my helmet, but he was dead serious. I obeyed.

Masumi's attitude towards the damaged and destroyed sections of Sendai confused me. He was like a tour guide, showing me the sites of an ancient battle that had long been forgotten. Even as mechanized shovels and the commotion of workers carried on around him, he showed almost no sadness or disappointment in parts of the city he knew so well lying in ruins and being carted away. He told me where things had been but didn't even tell me how long they had been there or if anyone was hurt or killed when buildings had collapsed. When I finally asked, he would say "some people died, but I don't know who." For all I know, his family had been wiped out in one. Masumi's face was stone, even as we spent the night doing checkups in a packed refugee shelter, which housed some of his family, on the outskirts of Sendai.

A friend told me last week that she read about the lack of psychological assistance for people who suffered and lost in the earthquake and the tsunami. I have yet to meet someone who openly needs assistance. As a traumatologist, I can only think that is a very good sign - or a very bad one. One man had been trying to fly a kite in Miyagi Prefecture when the quake hit. There was no breeze, but the plum tree nearby shook and several plums fell out. He took some of them, put them in his bag and went home. His reaction to the earthquake, when he was later asked by a journalist, was to say "daijobu" - it's all right. That man obviously did not live in downtown Sendai. Something in Masumi's eyes tells me his battle is not over.

I am just happy to see the radiation hot zone in daylight, as we will arrive later today and not by night as it appeared in my dreams.

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