On March 11th, 2011 the Great East Japan Earthquake/Tsunami changed many people’s lives in Japan. It was a normal day for Ayano Oba, a13 year-old junior high school student at the time. She participated in her school graduation and was planning to spend time with her friends in the afternoon when the tsunami hit. March is the time of graduation in Japan. Mariko Suzuki, a 12 year-old elementary school student at the time was also practicing for her own graduation as the earthquake hit.
At the time, I was a pre-nursing student at the University of California Berkeley and vividly remember that week as if it occurred yesterday. I constantly checked the news in class and helplessly observed the sleep deprived, worried expressions of my friends who had family in the Tohoku region. Although I was across the sea, this experience led me to work with the TOMODACHI initiative and opened my eyes to disaster nursing.
TOMODACHI initiative is a project started to support Japan’s recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake/Tsunami. It encourages emerging young Japanese leaders to bring innovation and energy back to their regions through global experiences. The TOMODACHI initiative has a few different focus areas led by various sponsors. The program I participated in was led by Softbank, a mobile company in Japan, and focused on Community Service Leadership through a curriculum called Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now! (YPLAN) that was developed at UC Berkeley. One hundred Japanese students from the Tohoku region affected by the earthquake/tsunami come to stay at the UC Berkeley campus for three weeks and complete the YPLAN curriculum as well as present their own ideas at the end of the program.
Before coming to nursing school, I worked with the TOMODACHI program for four years. My main role was serving as a Mentor Coordinator, which connected Japanese students to American students for a cultural exchange and networking experience. I was also recruited as a Resident Assistant (RA) who managed a smaller group of students and served as their “big sister/brother” during the three week duration of the program. As an RA I led a group of 23 of the brightest and most ambitious high school students I have ever met.
Ayano was one of the most kind-hearted students of the group. Her house was affected by the tsunami and she was not able to go home for over four months. She reflected upon her interaction with healthcare providers during her disaster experience and told
me about how her grandmother’s usual home medications to control her epilepsy weren’t available after the disaster. Her grandmother had exacerbated symptoms that usually would not occur. The healthcare team was very apologetic of the situation, but was unable to give her the appropriate care due to scarce resources.
Mariko was the most energetic and cheerful student of the group. She was very ambitious and was constantly thinking how she can make a change in her community. Her brother also participated in the TOMODACHI program a year before her, and his growth made a great impact on her decision to participate in the program and inspired her passion for community service. She is currently studying abroad in Missouri to further search for her passion in community service.
I asked Mariko and Ayano “What advice would you give future disaster nurses?” and they both answered that the biggest thing that encouraged people during a disaster were when nurses actively listened and talked to them. Regardless of how many times we practice and prepare for disasters, the experience will be very chaotic and everyone will be in a panic. People will be worried and scared, and it’s going to be crowded and loud. But we should be present with the people we interact with, one person at a time.
This reminded me of one of the most important qualities of a nurse regardless of what situation we work in—compassion. As nurses, we may face times where we feel helpless when we can’t “fix” all the problems our patients are facing. However, we must remember that simple things such as being the person who reaches out and asks, “Are you okay?” or being that person who takes the time to sit and listen to our patients can be the most therapeutic experience our patients may have.
My encounter with these students was such an inspiring experience. I was able to see how optimistic these young individuals were despite such a tragedy. It was such an honor to see how they grew as individuals over the three weeks of the program. Humans are strong, most of the time much stronger than you can imagine. As Mariko tells me with her cheerful smile, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
 TOMODACHI website http://usjapantomodachi.org/about-us/