During her monthlong stay in Syria in mid-April, Dr. Nobuko Kurosaki, who leads the Japanese arm of Doctors Without Borders, heard gunshots and explosions all around her.
Although it wasn’t the first country racked by civil war she had visited, the fighting there was more chaotic and intense than the others, she said. But this is the life she has chosen: Kurosaki said she goes to countries suffering from conflict, epidemics and natural disasters because “doctors are needed.”
The Syrians injured in the conflict had to decide whether to risk the constant bombing to see a doctor or stay at home with unabated pain, said Kurosaki, 56.
She treated an endless flow of patients at the hospital where she was based, while holding meetings with local staff to discuss ways of preserving their own lives. Some hospitals have been bombed by planes.
A native of Nagasaki Prefecture, Kurosaki graduated from Nagasaki University and made a career as a surgeon working at many hospitals, including Nagasaki National Hospital and Nagasaki Medical Center. But she was not truly happy as she felt she was spending too much time on administrative matters and not enough on patients.
To fulfill what she felt was her mission as a doctor, Kurosaki decided to join Doctors Without Borders, founded in France in 1971, to offer emergency relief in conflict zones around the world.
In Sri Lanka, the first country she was dispatched to after joining the group in 2001, many people were waiting in line for treatment, while her position back home was simply filled by another doctor. Kurosaki said she then realized that Japan has enough doctors and opted to focus on emergency relief in countries lacking medical workers.
After 11 missions, Kurosaki assumed the presidency of the Japan branch in March 2010.
“I used to be tense all the time because I did not want to be underestimated just because I am a woman,” she said.
But now she feels more relaxed, given all the challenges she’s gone through.
“My former colleagues have said they were surprised that my personality changed,” she said.