Namie doctor refuses to abandon residents

by Tomomi Miura

Kyodo

Shunji Sekine, 71, opened a temporary clinic in early May in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, to examine residents who began visiting their homes after evacuating the coastal town during the 2011 nuclear disaster.

“It would be a problem if they got injured during their temporary visits,” said Sekine, who has been practicing medicine in the town since 1997. “I want to be here for patients who need me.”

The district where the town’s office building was situated was part of the exclusion zone set up to protect residents from radiation exposure from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, some 10 km south.

But the government began allowing residents to visit their homes in the daytime in April.

As in other areas of the prefecture where access bans were lifted that month, residents are going in to reclaim furniture and other possessions or visit family graves, while workers decontaminate the area or restore the town’s infrastructure.

Since most of the towns in radiation-threatened areas have not yet restored administrative functions and hospitals remain shut down, many residents fear they won’t be able to get medical attention if they have an accident or get sick during the visits.

The Namie Municipal Government thus asked Sekine to open a clinic on Thursdays, weekends and holidays next to a temporary office it set up.

Sekine had been working at a clinic in the Tsushima district, but it was forced to move to the city of Nihonmatsu soon after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple core meltdowns at the plant. As a consequence, the radioactive fallout tainted the district after hitching a ride on the area’s northwesterly winds.

Since then, Sekine has been living in a business hotel in Nihonmatsu that now hosts Namie’s administrative functions.

He said many of his patients used to be robust farmers with powerful voices but are now unable to stand without the assistance of family members. Some even need wheelchairs.

“They look depressed and completely different from how they were before the accident,” he said, adding that he feels a strong need to establish a rehabilitation facility for them.

“Since many patients are stressed out, let’s treat each of them as individual human beings,” Hayato Shiga, a 25-year-old nurse employed by Sekine, recalled the doctor saying during his job interview.

Shiga’s family also had to evacuate.

“I understand the feelings of the evacuees and would like to make the clinic a place where patients feel able to stop by and talk freely,” he said.

Although there is no running water and only partial power and temporary bathrooms at the clinic, Sekine said he is undeterred.

“I’ve been in Namie for 16 years and people depend on me. Do you think I can quit?”