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Eye surgeon makes a difference, performing ‘miracles’ in Vietnam

Tadashi Hattori sacrificed promising career in Japan 'to live for the people'

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

In 1965, Akira Kurosawa directed “Akahige” (“Red Beard”), the story of an Edo Period doctor who teaches his arrogant intern the importance of compassion, responsibility, and empathizing with his patients. Ophthalmologist Tadashi Hattori has seen this movie, but he insists that he was not thinking about it when, 10 years ago, he threw away a promising career in Japan to help poor people in Vietnam instead.

“It was my father that, before dying, told me to ‘live for the people,’ ” says Hattori. “Later on, one of my sensei taught me that a doctor should have not only the skills but also the heart. That’s why my motto is, ‘Treat your patients as your parents.’ “

Since 2002, Hattori has treated thousands of patients for free, while training other doctors and teaching them the latest techniques of vitreous body and retinal surgery. “Actually I didn’t want to become an ophthalmologist,” he confides. “I wanted to be an abdominal surgeon because my father died of stomach cancer when I was in high school. At the time I heard a doctor’s rude and thoughtless comments about him. That was the main reason why I became a doctor.”

When Hattori was studying at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, ophthalmology was considered a minor department, but when he was about to finish his studies he went to one of their parties. “I mostly went because I’d heard there would be a lot of free yakiniku (Korean barbecue),” he says, chuckling, “but it was then that I met newly appointed professor Shigeru Kinoshita. We got very close because we were both from Osaka and felt different in the rather conservative Kyoto environment. He convinced me to switch to ophthalmology, and I’ve never regretted my decision.”

After graduation, Hattori found a job in Kyoto, but after two years he moved to Osaka because his professor wanted him to become a retina specialist and Osaka was famous for retina surgery. There he learned the most advanced techniques, but when he moved back to Kyoto two years later he found to his dismay that their methods were outdated, leading to many failed surgeries. He ended up fighting with his professor, and eventually he quit and moved to several places until he was hired in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

It was while working there that Hattori attended a symposium in Kyoto in 2001 and met a doctor from Vietnam who urged him to visit his country. “The doctor told me that in Vietnam there were many people who were so poor they couldn’t even have surgery to prevent them from becoming blind,” he says.

“After pondering what to do for four to six months, I decided to go, but the director of my hospital made it clear that if I wanted to go to Vietnam, I had to quit my job. And this is exactly what I did. Money is not the only important thing in life. For many people, especially in my profession, status and money are everything, but for me, it’s much more important to do something worthwhile, even if I have to sacrifice myself.”

During his first visit, which lasted a month, Hattori took note of what they needed in terms of equipment. His hope was to convince medical companies to help him by donating their instruments, but everyone declined. After all, he was an outsider now, and the companies had nothing to gain.

He even sought financial help from the Japanese government to buy the ¥500,000-¥600,000 worth of equipment he needed, but he was told that as an individual he was not eligible, as the government would only support NGOs.

In the end he decided to buy those instruments himself. “My wife at first balked at the idea of using our savings, which we were planning to use as a deposit to buy an apartment,” he says.

“For three days she refused to talk to me, but eventually she said yes. That’s how I got started. Since then she often jokes that she picked the wrong lottery number. For many women, marrying a doctor is a dream come true, but my wife got one who not only is not rich but often works for free and even spends his own money to help his patients,” he says, laughing. “But jokes aside, she has supported my activity all these years and she doesn’t want me to quit.”

In the beginning, Hattori’s work in Vietnam was difficult not just because of the language barrier (a local doctor would translate for him in English), but because he had to get used to the customs and food, and overcome the many differences in culture and way of thinking. “Several times I’ve had food poisoning,” he says, “but my current schedule requires me to do four to five one-hour surgeries a day (previously it was seven to 10 surgeries a day), and I can hardly afford to stay in bed. So sometimes I do surgery with an IV drip in my arm. In Japan if you postpone a surgery today, you can usually do it tomorrow, but in Vietnam you have to wait one week, or sometimes one month, before your turn comes again.”

Since that fateful encounter in 2002, Hattori has divided his life between Japan and Vietnam. “I go to Vietnam every month except July and September. Recently I’ve realized I need to rest more in order to heal both my body and soul, so I’ve been gradually reducing the length of my stay. In the beginning I used to spend 180 days a year in Vietnam, but now my students who work in the big cities can do surgery without me, so last year I limited my stay to 140 days.”

Hattori usually spends 10 to 14 days in Vietnam each time. Monday through Thursday he works in Hanoi, at the National Institute of Ophthalmology, or maybe in Ho Chi Minh City, while on weekends he travels with his team to the provinces, sometimes as far as seven hours by car. “Now I concentrate more and more on the rural areas because capable doctors and nurses are much fewer. The local doctors screen the patients in advance, so when we arrive we can concentrate on the surgeries, which we do all day long, usually from 7 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. We bring all the necessary equipment with us, which amounts to about 40 boxes.”

On Monday, Hattori comes back to Japan, and the next day he starts traveling around, visiting different hospitals all over the country. “When I first went to Vietnam 10 years ago I was jobless, but in time, through the help of friends and medical companies, and simple word of mouth, I’ve been able to build a network of public hospitals and private clinics that I visit regularly on a part-time basis. For example, on Tuesday I go to Fukushima, on Wednesday to Morioka, on Thursday to Wakayama, and on Friday and Saturday to Kagoshima. In Tokyo and Osaka there are already many doctors, so I have to go where demand is higher.”

Asked about the differences between Japan and Vietnam, Hattori points out the gravity of the situation abroad. “Curing people in Japan is much easier not only because we have better hospitals, but because the patients come to see us when their disease is in the early stages. In Vietnam, on the other hand, they often wait until they are almost blind. Many people actually do nothing until they lose one eye. It’s only when they are in danger of losing even the other one that they see a doctor, which of course puts a lot of pressure on our job. So in Vietnam there are many one-eyed patients.”

As if Hattori’s workload was not enough, in 2005 he started the Asia Prevention of Blindness Association, an NGO that he has since been running almost single-handedly. He sees this as an unavoidable and useful part of his job as all the financial help and donations he gets are tax-free.

“Some people help me once in a while, but I have to do most of the job myself, including writing the monthly reports for my website and especially the important paperwork, which always gives me headaches. Actually I find this much harder to do than surgery,” he chuckles. “The problem is, the amount of total donations coming in changes every year, but our expenses are constant, so there are years when I have to use my own salary to make up for the difference.”

Through the years Hattori has been called the “Miracle Worker” and “The Man with Divine Hands,” but he says he is only a common doctor doing his job.

At the same time, he understands that his example will not be followed anytime soon. “I wish other people followed in my path,” he says, “but it’s very unlikely because you have to give everything you have and sacrifice many things. For example, every doctor belongs to some university or hospital, but when I quit my job I was left with nothing. I used to earn a good salary and all of the sudden I had to eke out a living working many part-time jobs.”

This said, he is always looking for help, not only from medical personnel. Interested people can contact him through his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/#!/tadashi.hattori.37

“I promise this will be a rewarding, life-changing experience,” he says. “There is nothing better than helping people and seeing them happy.”

For more information, visit: www.asia-assist.or.jp (in Japanese).