When aid workers become disaster victims

تم النشر: 3 يونيو 2016 4:44 CET

By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC

Although it stands only 2 kilometres from the epicentre, Kumamoto Red Cross Hospital was the only medical facility that was still operational following two devastating earthquakes that hit Kumamoto Prefecture on 14 and 16 April. Most of the doctors, nurses and other staff lived close to the hospital and today, around 30 per cent of these Red Cross workers are still unable to return to their homes.

The disaster destroyed 83,000 buildings in the area and around 180,000 people were evacuated. While most of the people whose homes were destroyed have found temporary accommodation, almost 10,000 people are still living in evacuation centres. It is often forgotten that although the staff at Kumamoto Red Cross Hospital plays a key role in providing relief to evacuees after the earthquakes, these devoted workers are also a part of the affected population.

 “Most of the old buildings in Mashiki were completely destroyed, including my grandmother’s beautiful house,” said Ms Mayumi Hamada, 27, a medical secretary at the hospital. The quakes were so violent that despite the strict Japanese building regulations thousands of newer structures in the town also collapsed. “My parents had just built a new house in traditional Japanese style. It was also completely destroyed. Our whole family is now living together in a very small prefabricated house, altogether seven people including my grandmother,” she said.

“I am very thankful that my whole family was saved, but it is just impossible to feel that this is normal life. Mashiki used to be such a beautiful town with the river flowing through the centre and an amazing bamboo forest. Now with most of the old buildings lost it does not feel like my hometown anymore,” said Ms Hamada.

“The people in Mashiki have a strong sense of unity and we had very close friendships with our neighbours. Now we are living scattered all around and separated from the people that have always been part of our lives. It is this social impact that is the hardest,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks as she explained the painful reality.

Kumamoto Red Cross Hospital is almost 20 years old, but it was designed to withstand extreme earthquakes and still remain functional. The high level of disaster preparedness and the thorough training of staff meant that the necessary emergency medical relief could be provided when it was most needed.

“The Japanese Red Cross Emergency Response Unit (ERU) stores its equipment here in the hospital, and this was a key reason why we were able to restore water and electricity so soon after the disaster,” said Mr Yasuhiro Soshino, Manager of the International Medical Relief Department.

“We also used the ERU equipment to help the evacuees living in Mashiki gymnasium and provided emergency tents to Kumamoto City Hospital so that they would be able to restore their emergency medical services,” he said.

To support their important work, Red Cross hospitals in other parts of the country dispatched around 1,200 medical staff to Kumamoto. 160 Red Cross medical teams took part in the relief operations and in total the Japanese Red Cross treated around 5,000 patients in the hospital and in evacuation centres in the affected area.

Kumamoto Red Cross Hospital was the only medical facility in the city that was able to provide emergency medical relief after the disaster, and its workers have been carrying a tremendous workload. Despite the long hours, their work has served as a refuge away from the harsh reality of their personal situations.

“It is such a relief to be able to concentrate only on work. Having time for myself only brings thoughts about everything that has been lost. If I can come home exhausted and fall asleep as soon as I lay my head on the pillow things become a lot more bearable,” said Ms Hamada.

The hospital offers psychosocial support to help its staff cope with this combination of extreme workload and the severe personal problems that have resulted from the disaster.

“Despite all their problems they are so dedicated to helping others that they forget that they are also among the affected and may need some support,” said Dr Akira Miyata, Vice Director of the Kumamoto Red Cross Hospital. 

“Somehow we are always deeply divided emotionally. We worry about our patients, but we also have to think about our families and our affected friends and neighbours. These are conflicting issues that are difficult to resolve,” said Dr Miyata.