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Medical services in disaster-hit areas have developed 10 years on

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Toshiaki Saito examines a patient at the Kesennuma City Motoyoshi Hospital in Miyagi Prefect in August 2015.

KESENNUMA, Miyagi — Tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 caused flooding on the first floor of Kesennuma City Motoyoshi Hospital in Miyagi Prefecture, the only hospital in the Motoyoshi district, which has a population of about 10,000.

Within a month after the disaster, two full-time doctors, including the hospital director, left. Since then, doctors from outside the area have been helping the hospital through the crisis.

Toshiaki Saito, 53, is one of those doctors. He was born in Sendai but had been working in Shimane Prefecture in community medicine at the time of the 2011 disaster. Saito volunteered to help out soon after the earthquake, and from May of that year, he started treating patients at evacuation centers in Kesennuma City.

After returning to Shimane, Saito couldn’t stop thinking about the plight of the disaster-stricken areas suffering from doctor shortages. He registered with a “doctor bank” service in Miyagi Prefecture and returned to Kesennuma with his family in April 2012 to work full-time at Kesennuma City Motoyoshi Hospital, later becoming the hospital’s director.

The hospital has opened pediatric, psychiatry and surgery departments since the arrival of Saito, who is striving to make the hospital a community facility at which everyone from babies to senior citizens can receive a full range of treatments.

In addition to outpatient and inpatient clinics, the hospital has expanded its services to include 120 home visits to patients who are unable to go to the hospital, in cooperation with local welfare facilities.

Courtesy of Toshiaki Saito
Toshihito Oikawa, center, is seen eating a meal food prepared by his wife Tomoe.

One of the things the hospital has been focusing on is supporting patients who have difficulty eating, through an initiative that was triggered by an encounter with Hirotaka Isse, a dentist who also came to Kesennuma as a volunteer after the disaster and worked at Kesennuma City Motoyoshi Hospital for a period of time.

Diseases such as stroke can impact swallowing and chewing functions, which can result in complications such as aspiration pneumonia. In the Motoyoshi district, where the population is aging, there has been an increase in the number of elderly people developing aspiration pneumonia.

Isse, 39, observed the importance of swallowing training during his time in Kesennuma. He repeatedly visited a hospital in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, to learn about the training from a leading expert and taught the techniques he had learned to doctors and nurses at the Kesennuma hospital.

After proper training, patients who could barely eat were able to enjoy their favorite meals, which dramatically lifted their mood.

“To live is to eat. I realized how important it is to support local people so that they can live here for a long time,” Saito said.

Training at Kesennuma City Motoyoshi Hospital begins as soon as patients are admitted, and about 60% of the patients leave the hospital able to take food normally.

One such patient was Toshihito Oikawa, 55, who lives in the Motoyoshi district. In 2014, Oikawa suffered a stroke, after which he was unable to eat properly. That fall, he was hospitalized due to aspiration pneumonia. During his stay in the hospital, he used a toy whistle to train his mouth and throat muscles. A year later, he was able to eat various kinds of food, including simmered fish, and fried pork and kimchi, prepared by his wife Tomoe.

“I’m so happy to be able to eat what I want,” Oikawa said.

Saito said, “It is also a role of medical care to be close to the lives of patients and to create moments when they can feel happy.”