SHIOGAMA, MIYAGI PREF. – As a maternity hospital midwife, Yukie Aoyama felt a powerful sense of duty that overrode her fear when the city of Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, was struck by the huge earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of the Tohoku region in March 2011.
“We would have died if the tsunami had been higher than 10 meters,” Aoyama, 53, said, recalling the escape of some 50 pregnant women and hospital staff to the top floor of the three-story building.
Aoyama was taking a nap at home before her night-shift when the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck shortly before 3 p.m. on March 11.
She quickly drove her second son to a nearby school located on a hill and then walked down toward Ikeno Clinic, where she worked. The clinic is located just 400 meters or so from the sea.
On her way down, she passed people walking uphill to escape the disaster. They told her to return up the hill, shouting that tsunami were coming, but she decided she couldn’t abandon her responsibility as a medical worker.
“I regretted not saying goodbye to my son” before leaving the school, she said.
Shortly after 3 p.m., Aoyama reached the hospital, where there were patients in labor or who had yet to awake from anesthesia following a cesarean section.
Nobuko Ikeno, 68, the hospital’s director, said it was impossible to let any of the patients walk some 500 meters to the nearest safe area. She told Aoyama and two other chief nurses to lead the women from the second floor, where they previously had gathered during practices for disaster drills, to the top floor of the building.
It wasn’t until early evening that the tsunami warning was lifted, after the large waves had subsided.
Before dawn the next day, a baby boy uttered his first cry in the delivery room at the hospital.
Aoyama was born and raised in Hokkaido and moved to Shiogama after getting married. Knowing that many citizens were killed or injured in Shiogama in 1960 by tsunami that crossed the Pacific following a massive earthquake in Chile, she began to keep the danger of huge waves in her mind.
While many hospitals and other businesses were unable to function after the March 2011 disaster due to power failures, Ikeno’s hospital avoided cuts thanks to an electric generator it had purchased in 2005.
“I would like to keep stressing the importance of off-grid power generators to medical institutions,” Aoyama said.
Miwa Sakuta, 45, gave birth to her second son, Tatsuki, at the hospital in July 2001 after a series of tubal ligation operations, as she had difficulty becoming pregnant again following the birth of her first child. Sadly, she lost Tatsuki to the disaster.
When Sakuta visited Ikeno Clinic this summer to see her niece after the niece gave birth, she again met Aoyama, who had been involved in the delivery of Tatsuki. In tears, Aoyama hugged Sakuta.
“I was really glad to know I had a person who cried tears for me,” Sakuta said. “I will live in a manner Tatsuki will praise when I meet him in heaven in the future.”
Keiko Chiba, 54, who works at a general hospital in Shiogama, took the initiative in setting up a network of maternity and other area nurses two months after the 2011 twin disasters to support traumatized mothers.
“Midwives not only help the safe and memorable delivery of babies but also give advice to mothers from positions close to them at various stages of their life,” Aoyama said.
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