SAGAING, MYANMAR – A group of doctors, nurses and volunteers from Japan are providing medical services in Sagaing, Myanmar.
Japan Heart is a nonprofit organization that offers medical services at a hospital set up by a local Buddhist monk to treat the poor more than 20 years ago.
Pediatric surgeon Hideto Yoshioka, 48, founded the NPO in 2004 with his wife, Haruna, and four other people. Haruna is also a qualified doctor.
“We wanted to help people who couldn’t receive medical treatment,” Yoshioka said, explaining why they set up the organization, which is visited by some 200 medical workers and volunteers from Japan every year.
“I want young people who come here from Japan to go through the valuable experience of working for the sake of other people and being appreciated for it,” Yoshioka said.
Activities by Japan Heart are financed by donations from supporters of the Tokyo-based organization. With Yoshioka and other Japanese staff members working for nothing in Sagaing, the group has so far examined 50,000 patients and performed operations on more than 10,000 of them.
Yoshioka was born in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, and studied at Oita Medical University.
In 1995, Yoshioka visited Myanmar for the first time to attend a ceremony in the town of Meiktila to mark the completion of a memorial pagoda for the war dead as part of activities by a medical NPO he belonged to at that time. He became acquainted with family members of Japanese soldiers killed in Meiktila, one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War II.
Soon after returning to Japan, Yoshioka was sent to Myanmar again by the NPO to offer medical services in Meiktila. Talking with elderly people in the area, he learned that residents had provided food, water and sleeping places to Japanese soldiers who were retreating after Allied forces took control of the town in February 1945.
“As a Japanese citizen, I thanked them for their help,” Yoshioka said. “I think (the soldiers) would have felt relieved as they experienced the gentleness of people in a foreign land.”
Yoshioka returned to Japan after two years but regretted that there were patients he could not operate on due to a shortage of equipment and his insufficient skills as a pediatric surgeon.
After improving his skills in Japan, he established Japan Heart and resumed his medical activities in Myanmar.
Many people in Myanmar can’t afford medical treatment.
Japan Heart treats patients younger than 18 for free, and it is not unusual to find the 100 beds at Sagaing Hospital fully occupied by patients from all over the country.
Moe Hein Ko, 18, from the northern state of Kachin was recently operated on for a burn that stretches from his jaw to his right shoulder caused by boiling cooking oil when he was 6 years old. Left untreated, the injury had pulled his face muscles toward his shoulder over time.
Blackouts occur so frequently in Myanmar that Yoshioka could not give Moe Hein Ko a general anesthetic.
While in bed after the surgery, Moe Hein Ko, who hopes to become an architect in the future, put his hands together as if in prayer, smiled and said, “I want to thank the doc.”
Yoshioka said seeing children smile after successfully treating their ailments is primarily why he does the job. “Watching such kids for years has made me what I am today,” he said.
A massive cyclone struck Myanmar in May 2008, leaving 140,000 dead or missing in the southern delta region of the country. In a village in Kungyangon, at the mouth of the Yangon River, 107 people died and 50 children were orphaned.
Japan Heart sends a doctor to the village once a month to provide psychological counseling to children too shocked by the cyclone to bathe and speak.
It also regularly delivers food and stationery to the orphans and covers their educational expenses until they become able to support themselves.
Aye Thida Myo, 16, and her younger brother survived the cyclone and live in a Buddhist temple. Although she could not go to school for two years after the disaster, she now studies at a high school, hoping to become a teacher in the future.
“I can hang on because lots of people support me,” she said.