May 21, 2024

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How 3/11 forced a Fukushima doctor to become an expert in treating radiation

After the March 2011 earthquake triggered a tsunami and a triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, it was a significant challenge for Fukushima Medical University Hospital, which was not prepared to treat patients exposed to radiation.

But Arifumi Hasegawa, 53, who was then an associate professor teaching emergency medicine there, and other doctors had no choice but to do something. From then on, they were the front-line doctors facing an unprecedented nuclear incident on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

“Our facility was not fit organizationally to deal with multiple disasters occurring simultaneously,” said Hasegawa, recalling that time. “Medical staff lacked the knowledge and experience for such a situation.”

Nonetheless, doctors from the hospital, donning protective gowns and masks, treated several patients exposed to radioactive materials who were injured working inside the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. In addition, the region was still experiencing aftershocks from the quake.

As it became clear how serious the situation was, the central government withdrew the Disaster Medical Assistance Team, leaving Hasegawa and other doctors on their own to treat the patients, putting them under significant mental strain.

Even though his hospital was the only medical facility in Fukushima Prefecture to have been tapped to accept hospitalized patients exposed to radiation, that medical field was foreign to the doctors. Hasegawa, for example, had no idea how radioactive materials would affect him or the patients.

“Radiation treatment was considered a special field treated by specialist doctors” and is different from local medicine and emergency disaster medicine, Hasegawa said.

Three years later, in 2014, Hasegawa was appointed the first professor to teach a newly established class on radiation-related disaster medicine. He had two missions: treat patients who suffer from radiation exposure as a result of the long-term work of decommissioning nuclear power plants, and document and categorize the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster for future generations.

In 2015, Fukushima Medical University was tasked with coordinating a medical dispatch team if and when a nuclear disaster occurs in the future.

Hasegawa went on to expand cooperation with Nagasaki University and Hiroshima University — educational institutions well-versed in treating exposure to radiation — along with the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology and overseas research organizations.

Learning from the fact that there was a lack of cooperation among departments at the hospital immediately after the March 2011 disaster, Hasegawa established a new disaster medicine department directly under the hospital president.

The effort to do away with organizational divides to allow necessary staff to work as one proved its worth this February, when the prefecture was struck by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake. The hospital had a task force put together just two hours after the tremor hit.

For the past decade, Hasegawa has believed that when a disaster hits, it is essential for hospital workers — from nurses and technicians to administrative staff — to coordinate with officials from the central and local governments, fire department and Self-Defense Forces.

To make that happen, he has developed virtual training software that allows medical students, staffers and other front-line workers to see what it’s like when there is a nuclear disaster or a terrorist attack.

His ultimate goal is to apply the lessons learned from March 2011 to other natural disasters, sharing these not just with medical staff but also the general public.

“When there is a large-scale disaster like a nuclear accident, it’s impossible for just one hospital to treat patients,” he said.

This section features topics and issues covered by Fukushima Minpo, the prefecture’s largest newspaper. The original articles was published March 25.

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