Akiko Ito: 25 years spent serving humanity

Publié: 5 mai 2011 16:08 CET

Portrait of a Japanese Red Cross nurse
by Giovanni Zambello in Ishinomaki

“Ever since I became a nurse, I knew that I wanted to work abroad, and bring my help wherever there was a need, no matter how far from home,” says Akiko Ito, associate director of the International Medical Relief Department and Nursing Department of the Japanese Red Cross Society Nagoya Daini Hospital.

In the crowded cafeteria of the Red Cross hospital of Ishinomaki, her quiet voice is difficult to hear, but, despite the many long days of difficult work in recent weeks, her weary face conveys a reassuring sense of strength and tranquillity.

Akiko has been one of the main actors in the disaster relief efforts of the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) in Ishinomaki, among the worst-hit areas of Iwate Prefecture.

“I arrived here two days after the double disaster, and I found the hospital in utter chaos: people sleeping on the floor, evacuees mixed with patients, a shortage of beds and medical personnel, and frequent power cuts,” she remembers. “The situation was very serious but I didn’t lose heart. I’ve seen too many situations like this in my life.”

One month after the earthquake and the tsunami, the work in Ishinomaki hospital slowly begins to return to its normal pace. Akiko admits that now, after weeks of continuous 24-hour shifts, she can start again to enjoy a few hours of sleep every night.

Nursing is tough but it’s worth it

“But it took a long time before the situation started to run smoothly again. As a medical coordinator, I am in charge of managing the mobile medical teams which every day fan out from this hospital into the surrounding areas, bringing medical support to households and evacuation centres. My work day, which starts at 6am and rarely ends before midnight, includes preparing materials for the medical teams, holding daily management meetings, planning their activities and constantly assisting them from here while they are in the field,” she says. “It’s tough, but it’s worth it.”

After graduating from the Red Cross Nursing School, Akiko applied for her first mission abroad with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “I arrived in Pulau Bidong Island in 1988, where the Red Cross Red Crescent were involved in the management of the biggest refugee camp in Malaysia at that time,” she says. “I started my mission in a challenging environment and with little to no information on what was expected from me. But that didn’t stop me. Working side by side with another nurse, a midwife and a doctor for nine months, I was in charge of caring for refugees affected by malaria and other communicable diseases, as well as wounded people.”

Akiko interrupts her story for a moment and smiles, as if some happy memory has suddenly resurfaced. “The smiles on the faces of the people you’ve been taking care of, day after day. That alone can repay you for all your hard work.”

Bidong Island was only the beginning of a whole life dedicated to supporting vulnerable people around the world, in war-torn countries as well as in disaster situations. Counting on her fingers, Akiko tries to put in chronological order all the missions which in the last two decades have brought her to work between Asia and Africa, with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the IFRC, as a nurse but also as a project manager. East Timor, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, Indonesia… the list is long.

“But it doesn’t matter where you bring our help. It doesn’t have to matter, as long as you are guided by humanity,” continues Akiko “That’s exactly what I teach young nurses in my lectures.”

“Japanese Red Cross Society nurses have a long history that dates back to the 19th century which makes them a widely known and respected body, especially for their invaluable service during World War II, for their zeal and sacrifice, and for their human touch, bringing them closer to the people they take care of.”

“But they should also be known for the excellent preparation they receive, which lately has started to cover special training for disaster and emergency situations, including psychosocial support,” she says.

“I always teach my students that we nurses can really give much to the people we work for and with. But we cannot do everything. And being well aware of our limits is just as important.”

What you get is always much more than what you give

“Being a Red Cross nurse has changed my life. I’ve seen so many places and met so many people over the past 25 years, that I couldn’t imagine myself without such wealth of experience. I learned a lot from every single person who crossed my path, I learned how to make it by myself and how, as much as you may do, what you get is always much more than what you give.”

And what are the personal implications of a life choice like this? “This is a question that comes naturally to me.” Akiko bends her head to the side, thinking. “Many indeed. There are lots of things you take for granted and that you're simply forced to give up. Often including a stable relationship. I am not married, which has made things a lot easier for me during these years. From my side, I’m receiving a lot of support from my partner, family, friends and colleagues. That’s why I’ve been able to continue my work for a long time.”

So, after many years of dedicated service, is it time to take things easy? Akiko smiles. “No. Actually I just gave my availability to the ICRC to go on mission. I never thought that my latest mission would be the last. There is still too much to do out there.”