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UCLA pediatrician returns Japan's favor

A Japanese scholarship enabled Okinawa native Kozue Shimabukuro to study medicine. When disaster struck, she immediately signed up to join a medical relief effort. It's 'my turn to believe in Japan,' she says.

March 23, 2011|Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times
  • Students' book bags, folders and other belongings sit unclaimed in cubbyholes at Yamada South elementary school.
Students' book bags, folders and other belongings sit unclaimed… (Kozue Shimabukuro )

Reporting from Tokyo — Amid chaos that has become Yamada city — acres of snow-dusted debris, dusty relief trucks and a man who threw himself off a bridge the other day — Kozue Shimabukuro can't stop thinking about the cubbyhole lockers.

They line the back of the classroom at Yamada South elementary school that Shimabukuro, a pediatrician at UCLA, now calls her clinic in this hamlet about 280 miles north of Tokyo.

Nearly two weeks after the sea surged through the town and fire consumed much of what the water didn't ruin, only two children have come to claim their belongings. Some two dozen other cubbyholes remain untouched, their tiny backpacks, pencil cases, folders, toys and recorders awaiting the little owners whose names are affixed to each shelf. In the other classrooms, the cubbyholes are equally forlorn.

Photos: Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis

"If they are not coming back to get these things, that means they are dead or missing," Shimabukuro, 34, said by phone from the school Wednesday, pausing as another aftershock swayed the building. "That's how I know a lot of people are just gone. Out of so many locker rooms, I could find only three kids who came back to school to claim their stuff. Our medical staffs all stood in silence when we saw this."

It's not that there are no children at the school; there are scores among the hundreds of patients she treats for diarrhea, asthma, coughs and other ailments. But few seem to have been students here. Many are without family, dropped off by friends, grandparents who can't take care of them, or strangers. Shimabukuro already calls them orphans, though some of the children themselves don't seem to have accepted that fate.

"I just had a kid who was here, he was talking about how his daddy was going to fish," she said. "He was 5 years old. We couldn't say anything."

Most of the day, she said, the kids play soccer, fold origami and write encouraging graffiti on surfaces where, two weeks ago, they would have been forbidden to scribble. "Yamada town, we can do it," "We'll be together," "Our future will be bright," the scrawls say.

Then, out of nowhere, the tears come.

"A girl about 7, today she kept saying that she feels like her legs are shaking, like she can't walk anymore," Shimabukuro said, her voice breaking. "Neurologically she's fine, but I told her she's probably dehydrated.... She just started to cry.

"She said, 'I want my dad to carry me on his back again, a piggyback ride from daddy,' " Shimabukuro said. "I just felt so bad I couldn't do that for her. I may have drugs, and a medical license, but I can't give her that."

Shimabukuro was supposed to be relaxing in the sun in her native Okinawa in southern Japan. She was preparing to leave California on vacation when the giant earthquake and tsunami hit. She quickly volunteered to join a medical relief effort and was put on an emergency flight, without time to unpack her flip-flops and toss a winter jacket into her luggage. Friends lent her a coat and hat.

After several days in Tokyo, her volunteer group was sent to Yamada. She and her team make the rounds facilities in town, including the local hospital, which remains without electricity or running water, its first floor completely destroyed by mud and debris. Doctors hand out medicine and do what they can from the second floor.

At the elementary school, things are a bit better. Amid freezing temperatures, there is heat, power and running water. A temporary shower was set up Wednesday, giving evacuees their first chance to bathe since the disaster struck.

The high spirits of her patients, the dignity with which they are enduring their hardship, Shimabukuro said, buoy her. She thinks about her homeland, the opportunities it offered, and feels something has stirred deep in her heart.

"My parents cried when they heard that I have decided to be sent to the disaster area. There are still so many earthquakes and they are worried about me. But they told me, 'Go serve the people of Japan,' " she said.

"My parents were poor and they couldn't afford to send me to study. Our government did believe in me and gave me a scholarship," she said. "This is the only reason why I could've become a physician today. I will serve, with the best of my ability, and this really is my turn to believe in Japan."

Photos: Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis

julie.makinen@latimes.com

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