By Kathy Mueller in Japan
Life has become routine, in days which are anything but. The medical teams of the Japanese Red Cross Society gather each morning to receive their missions and destinations for the day. They have travelled from across Japan to help in those living areas that were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March.
For these teams of between eight and ten people, these days will probably be the most intense of their lives. Early each morning, they pack up their gear, grabbing ready-made lunches that they can eat in the car, and visit one evacuation centre after another.
"We are very grateful to the Red Cross," says Ken Minato, a fisherman in the town of Yamada, who now lives with more than 150 of his neighbours in the gymnasium of a youth centre. "The Red Cross medical team has been very supportive, helping those who are sick."
In the first three weeks since this double disaster, more than 484 Red Cross medical teams, involving about 3,000 doctors, nurses and support staff, have been deployed in the affected prefectures. They assess the needs of the survivors and provide basic healthcare services to evacuees, as well as psychosocial support.
"These people have experienced a tremendous trauma," says Dr Atsushi Katsumi during a visit to the Iwate Red Cross chapter in Morioka. "There is a lot of survivor guilt; people questioning why they survived when their loved ones didn't. Many are now scared of the water or the sound of water. The elderly are dejected and are afraid to talk. Many are experiencing nightmares."
The Red Cross is establishing a psychosocial support centre in Morioka, Iwate prefecture, similar to the one set up in Ishinomaki just days after the disaster. From there, teams will fan out across affected communities and begin the momentous task of helping survivors work through the emotional and mental stress they are now experiencing.
"They need physical contact," says Red Cross employee Toshie Kiyota with a shy smile. "They need someone to hold their hand, to put an arm around them, and to just sit, listen and encourage."
It's not just the mobile medical teams that have been stretched to their limit over the past three weeks. Staff and volunteers at the Red Cross hospital in Ishinomaki have been tending to the increased patient load in corridors and lobbies. They curl up on the floor in a corner for a nap whenever they can. Many are working double shifts. "I normally work an eight-hour shift," says Yukie Masaka, the chief nurse on the maternity ward. "But now I am working 22-hour shifts. We have enough medical supplies. What I really need are more people. Our staff are so exhausted."
"I was expecting people to be coming in with injuries. But there aren't that many," says Dr Michio Kobayashi, the 34-year-old doctor in charge of the emergency department. "Instead, we are treating people who are suffering from exhaustion and hypothermia. Many had nowhere to sleep initially, so they spent the night outdoors in the cold. Influenza is becoming a concern. We're also seeing chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, and of course, many people are suffering some psychological trauma."
The number and needs of these patients is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future.