BOSTON — Within days of the March 11 catastrophe, N. Stuart Harris, a doctor at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, found himself in the back of an ambulance heading north overnight from Tokyo to hard-hit Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture on a five-day volunteer relief trip.
Kesennuma, known for its fishing industry, was one of the municipalities worst hit by massive tsunami triggered by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake. A third of its area was swept away.
In addition to the damage inflicted by the wall of water, large-scale residential fires ravaged many parts of the city.
Harris saw firsthand how residents were living in fear of aftershocks and struggling against harsh winter weather and a lack of supplies.
The wilderness medicine specialist first went to Japan in 1989 to teach English on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program in Iwaizumi, a small fishing town on the Pacific coast of Iwate Prefecture, north of Kesennuma.
“The earthquake and tsunami were directly east of Iwate. . . . I was immediately and keenly aware that probably people who I knew and had cared for had been hurt by the disaster,” Harris said in a recent interview.
He coordinated with a fellow emergency medical physician at Massachusetts General, Takashi Shiga, who was planning a support mission to Kesennuma with the Tokushukai Hospital Group’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team.
The Nashville native felt his specialization in wilderness medicine, or resource-limited medicine under severe conditions, could be of great use in areas of Tohoku that were without heat, power, water and access to basic medical facilities.
Harris arrived in a “stunningly quiet and dark” Tokyo on March 15 and slept in the back of an ambulance heading north on “rough,” quake-scarred highways open only to emergency vehicles.
Reaching Kesennuma the next morning, he began assisting those who sustained injuries in the disaster.
Harris worked with local nurses at community centers, a junior high school gymnasium, a Buddhist temple and at various temporary shelters where people had gathered, awaiting aid. His team members treated more than 1,000 people during their five-day stay.
While in Kesennuma, Harris encountered extraordinary stories of survival, such as a woman who survived the tsunami by clinging to a tire she found floating beside her. Although he was concerned about possible damage to her liver and lungs, she recuperated after a few days at the local junior high school gymnasium.
Besides a limited supply of food and medicine, fuel shortages in the region are making it difficult to transport goods and heat homes.
After initial checkups, Harris noted the needs of those with chronic medical problems who found themselves without access to their usual medicines and treatment.
“When their homes were swept away, they might have escaped, but all their medications were swept away,” he said, adding that the situation is especially grave given rural Japan’s aging population.
While local nurses were not used to treating people in such difficult circumstances, Harris helped them re-establish necessary medical procedures.
“There was a very fluid and impressive exchange of information from the local nurses,” he said. “A lot of what we were doing was . . . establishing their medications as best we could.”
Harris felt that another essential duty the volunteers carried out was grief counseling.
“Despite the notable Japanese stoicism and self-containment, I was surprised at how open people were to expressing their grief,” he said, citing a woman who broke down crying and explained to volunteers that her daughter and granddaughter had been swept away by the tsunami.
Harris repeatedly came into contact with citizens who outwardly said, “I’m OK,” but allowed themselves to grieve and cry when alone with volunteers.
As a former commercial fisherman himself, he was also impressed by the community spirit and cooperation at the shelters.
Despite the freezing temperatures, teenagers and young adults chose to sleep in cars outside the local junior high school where around 600 people were sheltering, so the elderly and young families could spend the night indoors.
“There was an outreach . . . a caring community that was most impressive,” Harris said.
Despite the overwhelming odds, Harris observed an open display of humor, affection and the ability to “bear the unbearable” that makes him believe the community will recover.
“I was impressed 20 years ago with their personal qualities,” he said. “I have faith that those amazing qualities of spirit and of strength . . . will hold these people in good stead.”