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18-03-2011 | Latest News , Asia & Pacific

Japan: No rest for Red Cross medics as search and rescue efforts continue


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In the small town of Ishinomaki on Japan's north-east coast, Ishinamaki hospital has been like a magnet, drawing people in from miles around, many of whom simply find comfort in being able to sleep in a warm corridor with strangers. With all other local hospitals flooded or damaged, this hospital is a beacon of hope for thousands of local people whose lives have been shattered by the tsunami that slammed into the Japanese coastline on Friday 11 March.

In the last three days, the hospital has received over a thousand patients from the surrounding area, and every inch of floor space is occupied with the sick and the wounded. Most of the injured are brought by civil defence helicopters and buses, while others manage to limp in or are carried through the doors. The trauma is evident, written on the pale faces of many who have seen loved ones swept to their death.

It is the elderly who have been hit the hardest. The tsunami engulfed half the town and many lie shivering uncontrollably under blankets. They are suffering from hypothermia having been stranded in their homes without water or electricity. At night, the town is plunged into darkness and it is bitterly cold. The night sky is penetrated by the searchlights of civil defence helicopters, which continue the round-the-clock search for stranded households.

Dr Takayaki Takahashi is a surgeon who leads one of the five mobile medical teams that operate out of the hospital. He's been on call for 48 hours straight. Each day he heads out with another doctor and three nurses to run clinics at the evacuation centres set up in public buildings where thousands of people have been housed.

"Today we went to Miyoto, which is only about 10 kilometres away by road, but the bridge from the mainland had been swept away. We had to get there by helicopter as it is still surrounded by water. We treated 100 people and left three days rations of food and water for 700 people who are sheltering in a school."

All along this coastline, people continue to emerge from the debris. Some have been marooned in their homes, surrounded by the lakes of seawater left behind as the tsunami retreated. The stories that return with the medical teams bring home the enormity of this disaster. In some areas, the tsunami destroyed everything in its path - the teams no longer venture north-east of the town as they know there were no survivors.

Many of the wounded are burn victims whose homes caught fire when the diesel from sinking fishing boats ignited the mass of debris being carried inland by the tidal surge. In one area, local residents are now too afraid to stay in their homes at night because of the frequent aftershocks and the fear of a repeat tsunami. Instead, they sleep in their cars on the second storey of a car park.

Some of the seriously injured taken to the hospital are people who were swept up in the tsunami. They're being stretchered in with internal injuries and severe wounds. Others are at risk from pneumonia having inhaled large quantities of contaminated sea water.

Hundreds of Red Cross medical staff have come in to work at the hospital on four-day rotation from other hospitals across Japan. Whilst morale is high, medical supplies are running low, and with no electricity and problems finding fuel to run the hospital generator, conditions are difficult.

In the coming days, search and rescue efforts will turn towards the retrieval of dead bodies, which litter the devastated coastline. The hospital is setting up a special tent to store the bodies and help with the identification process.

As well as providing basic relief items such as blankets to evacuees, the Japanese Red Cross has deployed over 80 medical teams, which are based in hospitals receiving the sick and injured. The teams operate mobile clinics to provide care for the thousands of people displaced by the earthquake and tsunami.


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