Fukushima Global Health Research Trip

2013 Project Midterm Report 3

Kenji Fujitani (MS1, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai)
Project: One of my projects was to plan a global health program to visit Fukushima during the summer to study the effects of the nuclear disaster on mental and physical health. 
Contact: kenji.fujitani@mssm.edu

Project Summary and Update:

My project for the 2013-2014 JMSA Scholarship was multifold. My main primary goal was to organize a trip to Fukushima, Japan over the summer of 2013 to not only raise more awareness about the earthquake and tsunami in the United States and Japan, but also to gain a better understanding of the current situation in Fukushima and to offer potential solutions to ameliorate the current dire, albeit slowly improving situation. As medical students, gaining exposure to radiation and disaster medicine, seeing first hand the impacts of the 2011 disaster, raising awareness of the condition in Japan to Americans in the United States, and understanding the healthcare impacts especially on mental health were all also critical goals as well.


Although numerous other groups have organized groups to go to Fukushima, our project was slightly different, with the aim to detect current problems and offer solutions rather than simply retelling the story to the public in New York City, which is undoubtedly important and something we also plan to do this school year. I took the initiative to organize a month long trip to Fukushima in summer 2013. With support from Mount Sinai Department of Education’s Global Health program and mentorship from Dr. Craig Katz (clinical focus in Disaster Psychiatry) and Dr. Robert Yanagisawa (clinical focus in Thyroid Cancer), 2 medical students participated in this experience. Due to our success in creating a sustainable project/relationship with Japan, it will continue next summer as well. More details will follow in the next report.

Prior to our trip to Japan, we took a semester long course to learn about international global health, completed rigorous IRB processes to pursue research projects in Japan, and communicated with the Japan’s team to create a brand new month long program. I coordinated most of the logistics, scheduling, itinerary, finding hotels, and the like, which was not easy. This required tremendous amount of organization, as it was not only my first trip to Fukushima, but also a lengthy one and the very first trip from Mount Sinai Global Health. The teams in Japan had experience with shorter-term seminars, but not with a month long program. However, spending a month in Fukushima created opportunities for us that otherwise we would not have experienced with a shorter program. For instance, we stayed in rural areas of Japan in temporary housing and interacted with numerous locals from different areas of Fukushima, which allowed us to get a much better understanding and view of Fukushima.


Project Details:

For the first week, we took educational classes at Fukushima Medical University led by Dr. Kumagai at Fukushima Medical University, Department of Education Center for Disaster Medicine. This was very informative as Dr. Kumagai gave us detailed lectures and interactive sessions that described current conditions of Fukushima, training sessions in case of another nuclear emergency, biology and science classes of radiation, and past nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl. The content of the class was equivalent to what Dr. Kumagai gives to fifth year medical students at FMU and to what he presents to visiting doctors during seminars. Dr. Kumagai also gave us a tour of the Fukushima Daiichi cleanup site, most notably J Village, and we learned about the steps taken to clean and decommission the nuclear power plants. 

Toward the end of the first week and the second week, we visited community centers, performed a simulated disaster triage along with simulated radiation injury cases, volunteered at clinics called Yorozu next to screening centers all over rural Fukushima, consulted worried mothers about radiation levels in Fukushima, comforted elderly couples who were disappointed that their families living outside Fukushima would not come visit them again and eat their homegrown vegetables, undertook our research project by asking patients to fill out surveys, participated in thyroid screenings, and visited sites such as rural Fukushima (to compare radiation levels using Geiger counters), areas near nuclear power plant disasters, and tsunami stricken disaster zones. During the first two weeks, we frequently met with 2nd year – 6th year FMU students and learned the impact the 2011 disaster had on them.

Over the multiple weekends, we visited cultural spots to gain a deeper understanding of the local residents there. Locations included Aizu (inland Fukushima and hometown of Dr. Hideyo Noguchi), Sendai, and Yamagata Prefecture.

Starting the third week for two weeks, we joined the Nagomi Kokoro No Care Clinic in Soma city on the coastal regions of Fukushima. Nagomi Kokoro No Care Clinic enriched us with more direct contact with Fukushima residents. The clinic members especially Mr. Yonekura and Mr. Hada allowed us to pursue our research surveys, visit multiple housing locations to meet local residents and see their current living conditions, tour the damaged and unrepaired coastal regions, and follow day to day activities at Nagomi. We also were able to experience staying in temporary housing, integrated just like the displaced tsunami and nuclear radiation victims, whom we shared American candy, Japanese meals, fireworks, and played soccer with.

The specifics of the scheduling are difficult to get into, but upon finishing the month long program, we had a much better understanding of Fukushima than we had ever before. Not only did we figure out how a lot of the conveyed information by the American media was missing critical details, but also understood firsthand the lives and experiences of local residents. We were able to feel what the residents were going through, understand where we could do to help, and the necessity for us to keep offering support even 2-3 years after the disaster. Many residents told us they were fine, but others were still depressed and sad whether they knew it or kept it hidden inside them.

Due to its success and understanding of the necessity for continual support, we decided to continue the program for next summer and give more students the chance to learn about Fukushima, radiation, tsunami effects, and the current conditions in Fukushima. I will be coordinating and helping lead the second trip as well, and helping the next batch of students work on a program for next summer.