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Caring for A-Bomb survivors living in North America

September 12, 2011

by Jiro Yanagida

Many immigrants from Hiroshima Prefecture have long lived in the US, mainly on the West Coast and in Hawaii.  During World War II, many of their children, who were born in the US, visited their parents’ home towns to learn Japanese culture. These children were affected by the A-bomb, which was dropped on their country of origin by their country of birth. Some 1,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki either returned to the US after the war or relocated with American-born spouses or other family members.

The American Society of A-Bomb Survivors (ASA) was established to assist those who suffered from social discrimination and who had health concerns. As their requests for aid were rejected by both the US and the Japanese governments, the ASA asked physicians in Hiroshima to conduct periodic medical exams for the survivors living in North America.  The Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association (HPMA) acted on this request.  By establishing sister relationships with local medical associations in the US, the HPMA enabled physicians from Hiroshima to examine patients within the US, even without a US medical license. The first medical examination of A-bomb survivors living in North America took place in 1977 in California, and was followed by biennial medical exams in four cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Honolulu). Several A-bomb survivors living in Canada have received medical exams in Seattle.

This year marked the 18th medical exam, over which time a total of 400-500 North American survivors have  been examined 6,769 times. Since 1985, a similar biennial medical exam of A-bomb survivors has been conducted in South America (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru), and the HPMA has also been sending physicians for this project.  Since 1988, the HPMA has been inviting A-bomb survivors living overseas to Hiroshima to provide medical treatment at its own expense.

Currently, the medical exams in both North and South America and the medical treatments in Hiroshima are projects of the Japanese government; nevertheless, the HPMA has continued to manage these projects. Furthermore, based on our belief that “A-bomb survivors are still A-bomb survivors  wherever they live,” the HPMA has been making continuous efforts to extend a helping hand to North Korean survivors who have been neglected by the Japanese government due to lack of diplomatic ties.  Overcoming obstacles, the HPMA and JPPNW are finally going to send a delegation to conduct medical exams for A-bomb survivors in North Korea this October, with the assistance of KAWPP, the North Korean affiliate of IPPNW.

For the medical exam project in North America, a couple of medical teams are sent each time to LA/Honolulu and to San Francisco/Seattle. In July, I joined the SF/Seattle team as the team leader.  Thanks to the help of volunteer staffs including doctors and nurses, as well as clinics that provided exam sites, we prepared and carried out the exams successfully.

Every time we visited hospitals, clinics, medical associations, ASA chapters, consulate generals of Japan, and so on, I was asked to talk not only about the medical exam mission, but also about the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March, and the nuclear power plant disaster that occurred as a result.

In terms of the exam itself, we examined a total of 159 A-bomb survivors in both cities, and actually talked with them in Japanese with a Hiroshima dialect. This is important, because most survivors in the US and Canada live in Japanese-American communities and speak primarily Japanese, and they can understand complicated explanations such as those about their health problems more easily in Japanese than in English. Therefore, some survivors who have home doctors of their own didn’t know about diseases they have or fully understand treatments they receive until we explain precisely in Japanese during the exam.

Every time the medical exam teams have visited the US, they have been warmly welcomed.  A-bomb survivors always look forward to seeing and talking to Hiroshima doctors.  It is our impression that survivors feel relief from some of their health concerns, including those attributable to the atomic bombings, by seeing and talking with us. That is the main reason why doctors from Hiroshima continue this project; research is not the purpose at all. We do not know how long the Japanese government will continue to support this project. As members of HPMA, however, we intend to visit the US for as long as A-bomb survivors live there and the last single one asks us, ”Hiroshima doctors, please come to see me.”

Dr. Yanagida is a member of Japanese Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (JPPNW) and is president of the organizing committee of 20th IPPNW World Congress, which will be held in Hiroshima next August.

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