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A-Bomb Survivors Checking In

Some 175 of them will reunite Friday in Los Angeles for their periodic medical exams -- a bit of reassurance.

June 19, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

At 8:16 in the morning on Aug. 6, 1945, a house fell on Kaz Suyeishi. It probably saved her life.

Suyeishi, 18, was standing in the yard of her family's home in Hiroshima, Japan, chatting with a friend when the atomic bomb dropped by the United States military exploded two miles away.

The house was toppled by the blast, and she was buried beneath the rubble. Twenty minutes later she was pulled from the wreckage, apparently unharmed. The house may have protected her from the worst of the heat and radiation unleashed by the bomb, although she later suffered symptoms of radiation poisoning.

Suyeishi, now 76, tries not to think about whether the bomb will take some other, more subtle toll on her health. But on Friday, she will attend an unusual reunion in Los Angeles, with about 175 others who lived through the Hiroshima or Nagasaki blasts.

The survivors -- known as the hibakusha -- will gather for a round of medical examinations by a team of Japanese physicians assigned to provide long-term care and screening for those who lived through the bombing.

The exams are paid for by the Japanese government and are intended as a gesture of goodwill. They have taken place every two years since 1977 with the help of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. Japanese doctors will also examine survivors in Honolulu, San Francisco and Seattle this summer.

The main purpose is to let the survivors "know they are OK," said Dr. George Yamauchi, a Los Angeles urologist who helps oversee the exams because the Japanese doctors are not licensed to practice in California. "It's giving comfort to people."

As of 2001, there were 1,084 A-bomb survivors living in the United States, 676 of them in California. The Japanese doctors compile statistics on the health of the U.S. survivors, most of whom are over 70, but they often can't be sure whether health problems experienced by the survivors today can be blamed on radiation poisoning or aging.

The Japanese government estimates that 150,000 to 230,000 people died by the end of 1945 because of the blasts that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That number doesn't include the thousands of others believed to have had their lives shortened because of injuries from the bombs.

In Japan, where most survivors of the bombings live, studies have for 50 years tracked long-term health effects from the bombs. Most who suffered major exposure to radiation died long ago. But researchers have found a higher incidence of certain types of cancer -- such as leukemia and breast and thyroid cancer -- in those who were closest to the explosions, according to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima.

Many who did survive in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thought to have done so because they received low doses of radiation. Others just seemed to be more resilient.

"I have a patient who lost her entire family. She was the only survivor and she hasn't had any illnesses that someone would see due to radiation. It's kind of curious," said Dr. Takeshi Matsumoto, an internist in Los Angeles who participates in the exams.

Suyeishi remembers watching the B-29 bomber fly over the city that morning. She had seen planes on other mornings and remained unconcerned -- not believing it had any bombs to drop. "Then, all of a sudden, a powerful white flash like you are taking a picture," she recalls.

She was knocked unconscious and, after being pulled from the rubble, was soon dispatched to ground zero to search for missing relatives. Suyeishi, whose family survived, remembers seeing a dead woman in the street. Nearby, her baby lay dead in a water trough. "His body was red," she recalls.

Suyeishi would be bedridden for weeks with radiation sickness, but she seemed to recover.

She moved to the U.S. in 1949, married and had a daughter, although a doctor had told her she would never bear children. Her husband, who was not a Hiroshima survivor, died in 1989. Suyeishi now lives with her daughter in a modern home in Torrance filled with toys belonging to her two grandsons.

Keichu Teranishi, 73, was born in Tokyo, but during the war his family moved to Hiroshima because they thought it would be safer than Tokyo. Teranishi's son, Masakazu, of Walnut, knows the story well.

On the day the bomb was dropped, his father "was in mountains having [a meal] and then all of a sudden he was 20 feet away from where he was sitting down," said Masakazu Teranishi, 45.

After the war, the elder Teranishi lived in Walnut for many years and then decided to move back to Japan. He recently traveled to Los Angeles to undergo the examinations, which he had helped to organize.

His son will also be examined because doctors want to confirm that there are no health problems for children of the survivors.

Dr. James Yamazaki, 86, an honorary clinical professor at UCLA, has participated in studies of A-bomb survivors for over 50 years, and has long participated in the exams as a physician.

Yamazaki, an American who wrote a book about his experiences in Japan, titled "Children of the Atomic Bomb," was captured by the Nazis during the war and thinks he can understand the trauma each of the survivors must try to overcome.

During the exams, Yamazaki often brings a map of Hiroshima with him. "While I'm waiting and having coffee, I ask them where they were at the time, what happened to their families, and all kinds of experiences well up," he said.

The trip also gives the Japanese doctors an opportunity to reflect. Dr. Masayuki Hakoda, of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima, said he is impressed that many of the survivors of the blasts found the strength to rebuild their lives and begin again.

"They have worked hard and lived well," he said through a translator from his office in Japan, a week before traveling to Los Angeles.

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