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Experts' Visit Medical Center in Culver City : Japanese Doctors Aid A-Bomb Survivors in U.S.

July 02, 1987|SHELDON ITO | Times Staff Writer

In August, 1945, U. S. atomic bombs pounded Hiroshima and Nagasaki into piles of rubble, killing an estimated 210,000 people.

More than 40 years later, that number is still growing.

No one knows how many more will die from diseases caused by the radioactive fallout, but Japanese doctors say their studies of the estimated 370,000 hibakusha , or bomb survivors, show much higher than normal incidences of stomach, breast, skin, lung and bone marrow cancer.

Last Saturday, a team of four Japanese doctors, experts in the treatment of survivors of the atomic blasts, arrived in Culver City to examine and treat more than 200 hibakusha who live in Southern California.

"I think it's a tremendous help," said Akira Sasano, 58, a Hiroshima survivor who was examined at the Washington Medical Center on Monday. "The kind of experience (the Japanese doctors have) you don't have here in the United States."

Dr. Tokuo Tsubokura, a professor of medicine at the University of Hiroshima, said the Japanese government is sponsoring the four-city tour to gather data on the long-term effects of radiation exposure.

But he said the primary purpose of the tour, which includes San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu, is to provide humanitarian aid to survivors in the United States.

The doctors have not found many cases of cancer among the Southern California survivors, said Dr. Mitsuo Inouye, a Japanese-American physician who helped with the examinations, but their presence has been invaluable psychologically.

Many of the survivors live in fear that the radiation they were exposed to 42 years ago will catch up with them.

"It's like living with a bomb," said Kaz Suyeishi, 60, a Hiroshima survivor who was a little more than a mile from ground zero, the area directly below the point of detonation.

Sasano has also felt the fear.

"When you're healthy, it's OK," said the San Gabriel resident. "But when you have a pain you think that maybe it's the A-bomb."

For him and about 40 others who were at the hospital on Monday, that terrible day in Hiroshima in 1945 will never be forgotten.

Sasano, who works for a trading firm in Los Angeles, recalled that he was taking a break from carrying lumber to a construction site about three miles from ground zero when the bomb exploded.

He and his co-workers covered their eyes and plugged their ears, like they were trained to do during air raids, and dived to the ground.

A second later, the boom of the shock wave roared over them.

"When you have that kind of situation, you ask yourself: 'Am I alive or not?' " said Sasano, who was 16 at the time. "Gradually you move your fingers, you open your eyes. All of a sudden you see the grass is green. You wonder, 'Does heaven have green grass too?' "

When he realized he was alive, Sasano took off running. He stopped after a hundred yards and looked back.

"There was a tremendous cloud," he said. "If you ever see that kind of thing it is a beautiful sight.

"The bottom was pure red, the top was white as a cloud. This is the thing you can never forget."

He watched as the injured came streaming past him out of the inner-city devastation.

"The people kept getting darker and darker, which means they were burned," he said. People were walking past with their clothes in shreds, the charred skin from their arms hanging six inches below their hands.

'Couldn't Do Anything'

"Those people we were watching from morning until noon," he said. "We couldn't do anything."

Suyeishi, a spokeswoman for the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors U.S.A., said American hibakusha , like Sasano and herself, have trouble finding experts on radiation-related ailments and have had problems with insurance companies that refuse to cover them.

Ironically, most of the estimated 1,000 survivors in the United States were American citizens living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, according to Suyeishi, who was born in Pasadena.

Sasano, who was born in Fresno, moved to the United States after the war and served in the Army.

One survivor, a 58-year-old man who identified himself only as Tok, said he was grateful for the doctors sent by Japan, but thinks the responsibility for his medical care belongs to the United States.

"That's my opinion because the U.S. dropped the bomb, not Japan," said Tok, an American citizen born in Hawaii.

In 1976, after bills introduced in Congress to secure medical assistance for American survivors had failed, Suyeishi said the committee turned to the Japanese government for help.

Chernobyl Accident

The next year, Japan, which has granted free medical care for its bomb survivors since 1957, sent a team of doctors to examine the hibakusha in the United States. They have returned every two years.

Inouye said there is a need for a medical center specializing in radiation-related ailments in this country, especially since the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl last year.

Scientists have estimated that the Soviet reactor explosion released 30 to 40 times more radioactive ash than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

"Chernobyl is not going to be the last (nuclear accident)," Inouye said.

Tsubokura, speaking through an interpreter, said he hopes the team's findings will encourage governments to find alternatives to nuclear energy and to warn them of the effects of a nuclear war.

For all the carnage they caused, the atomic bombs of World War II "are a hundred times smaller than what they are exploding today," he said.

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