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Giving a Voice to Tsunami Orphans

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By Alison Hewitt

Published May 17, 2011 12:00 PM


No one knew what to do about the children.

Soon after Japan's 9.0 quake and towering tsunami, many evacuation centers housed small groups of orphaned children, says UCLA pediatric critical care doctor Kozue Shimabukuro, who canceled a visit to her family in Japan to join a roving government medical team in the devastation's aftermath.

Amid the chaos, with no parents or guardians, the children clung to each other, refusing to believe their families were killed in the disaster and hoping their parents would soon appear. Those who were hurt, whether from a scratch or a broken bone, didn't know whom to ask for help.

"They just kept waiting and waiting and waiting for their moms to come and pick them up," Shimabukuro recalls, choking back tears while struggling to tell a room full of listeners about her experience in the disaster zone.

Even now that she's safely back from Japan, completing her fellowship in pediatric critical care at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA, Shimabukuro continues efforts to give a voice to still-suffering tsunami orphans.

"We told the children that somebody cares still, somebody remembers them, somebody is going to make sure their future is all right," she says. "Please don't let us be wrong."

"We need your help"

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Dr. Kozue Shimabukuro did her best to treat children with limited medical supplies.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Shimabukuro.

On Friday, March 11, the day the quake hit, Shimabukuro was already on her way to LAX, expecting to leave for vacation on Okinawa, the equatorial Japanese island where she grew up. Her plans included boat tours, sun bathing and cherry blossom festivals — but when she got to the airport, all flights were canceled.

"The tsunami hit Japan," an airline worker explained. "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, within hours, Shimabukuro was in the air. Then panic set in. Japan was famously well-prepared for earthquakes, she knew. What could have happened to plunge Tokyo into blackout?

Looking around the room at the familiar faces of her colleagues, Shimabukuro reflects on the hours leading up to her flight. "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?

Shimabukuro spent her first days in Japan sleeping on the floor of Tokyo's Narita airport until she got permission to join a disaster response team. Even then, it took a week for the government to let the team enter the disaster areas. While her team waited, the limited helicopter transports carrying patients into hospitals were bringing in only adults, Shimabukuro says.

"Ten to 20 percent of the population were kids … 10 to 20 percent of the transports should have been pediatric patients," she says. "We asked, 'Where are they?' … The government's answer was, 'We don't know.'"

Meanwhile, disaster response teams already in the field had no pediatricians.

"They told me, 'We pray that kids don't come to us … because we won't know what to do,'" Shimabukuro says. "CPR, procedures, drug doses — everything is different with kids." Doctors who did encounter ailing children told her they froze up.

Embarking into chaos

Finally — a full week after the disaster — Shimabukuro's pediatric team received permission to set out. With resources stretched thin across the country, the team had virtually no support as it drove through snowy, frozen mountain terrain from one evacuation center to another, looking for patients. The group scrounged for food and struggled to find passable roads, Shimabukuro remembers. But worse than the cold and the hunger was what the team saw.

"It was hell," she says.

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Shimabukuro's team found lost toys and school things strewn throughout the rubble.

Hospitals were in chaos, and doctors were working five-day shifts without sleep. Shimabukuro's team visited schools and shelters where people had hung fliers with pictures of missing friends and family, pleading for any information — even if their loved ones were found dead.

At one school-turned-shelter, dozens of unclaimed backpacks remained neatly tucked in their cubbyholes. 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 photos of happy families, just in case.

"This one is a drawing from a kid to a daddy," she says, displaying 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 kids were in school or walking home — families everywhere were separated, Shimabukuro explains. When her team finally found shelters with children, the children were inevitably alone, she says. "No one knew whom they belonged to."

The team did their best, but makeshift shelter hospitals lacked appropriate medicine for children. With obvious distress, Shimabukuro tells how she couldn't treat a feverish baby because there was no liquid Tylenol; she remembers the frustration of having only origami to distract a little girl who needed antibiotics, when child-size doses were nowhere to be found.

Additionally, says Shimabukuro, most of the children showed signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Even those who were outwardly uninjured avoided eye contact, had trouble sleeping, and asked daily if they were going to die. And she recalls children sitting alone, saying, “My mom is coming, my mom is coming.”

"It's a dying story"

Shimabukuro returned to the U.S. after three weeks, drained but determined to rally aide for the people she left behind. But following her very first interview, a reporter informed her the disaster in Japan was becoming old news.

"It's a dying story," the reporter told her.

Recalling that conversation, Shimbukuro's voice quavers.

"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," she says.

"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.'"


This article originally appeared online at UCLA Today, April 28, 2011.

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