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Heeding the Call for Help Back Home

When disaster struck her homeland, CSON doctoral student Nahoko Harada was able to put her nursing skills to work

05/12/11
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Connell School of Nursing doctoral student Nahoko Harada works with a patient during her visit to Japan as part of a medical team, shortly after the earthquake and tsunami. “I was amazed at how strongly united everyone in the shelter was. No one was complaining.”

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: May 12, 2011

When a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami hit her native Japan in March, Connell School of Nursing doctoral student Nahoko Harada, a nurse practitioner with training in adult acute care and trauma, knew she had to act.    

“I’m comfortable in the center of a disaster,” said Harada in a recent interview, after completing two tours of duty providing emergency medical care and disaster relief in Japan. “It’s more stressful for me not to go and contribute.”  

Harada traveled as the only nurse with a group of three physicians, two Japanese and one American, from Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. The team had secured a connection with Tokushukai Medical Aid Team (TMAT), a Japanese non-profit organization that provides disaster relief. Harada’s group — dubbed “Team America” — was on the ground in Japan by March 14, just days after the earthquake and tsunami struck. They traveled nearly seven hours from the airport to the disaster relief headquarters, a damaged but functioning municipal hospital in northeastern Japan.   

Although the scene in Japan was “devastating,” says Harada, she was struck by the resilience in spirit and essence of the Japanese people.

“I was amazed at how strongly united everyone in the shelter was. No one was complaining.”  

Japanese are known for their reserved and careful nature, Harada notes: “The feeling is that ‘I should behave with care because if I act selfishly it will cause trouble for others.’ We always consider others.”  

Harada was stationed at the Hashigami Junior High School in Kesennuma, which served as a shelter for some 1,500 evacuated people. She stayed at the shelter until March 19 and then returned for a second stint from March 23 to 28.  

Since those with life-threatening or major injuries had already been treated or evacuated in the critical hours after the earthquake, Harada’s team saw patients with minor injuries and chronic, pre-existing conditions like hypertension or asthma exacerbated by limited medications, undesirable conditions and trauma from the disaster.   

But conditions at Kesennuma were a challenge for Harada and her colleagues. There was no running water, only generator-powered electricity and limited food. They could not conduct lab work and did not have an EKG. Two physicians Harada worked with did not speak Japanese, so she served as a translator, taking patient histories and making assessments and then presenting to the doctors.  

All the while, the medical staff and evacuees experienced powerful and terrifying aftershocks.  

The fuel shortage prevented many people from reaching the medical centers and shelters, so Harada’s team worked with local agencies and set out into the community to find people stranded in their villages or in smaller shelters in temples or shrines.   During Harada’s visit she was able to check on her family, including her mother, who lives in the coastal city of Chiba, and her two sisters in Tokyo. All were safe and unharmed. Harada also spoke to Japanese media about the relief efforts.  

It was an earlier disaster, albeit man-made — the aftermath of the 1995 bioterriorism attack in the Tokyo subway system — that inspired Harada’s interest in studying post-traumatic stress disorder. She came to the United States in 2004 to pursue advanced studies in nursing, with the goal of being a nurse practitioner. After earning a master’s degree from University of Pennsylvania, Harada chose to enroll in the Connell School’s doctoral program based on the strength of Professor Ann Burgess’ reputation in the field of trauma.  

“Nahoko is a remarkable nurse with intellectual curiosity, passion and leadership skills,” said CSON Associate Professor Angela Amar of her research assistant. “Nahoko’s innovative research is about understanding the experiences of Asian-American women who endure intimate partner violence. I have great respect for her desire to work with Asian-American women and to learn the unique ways that intimate partner violence affects their lives. She will make a difference in the US as well as in Japan.”   

Asked what she would tell those from outside of Japan about the disaster, Harada replies: “Please don’t forget Japan. The situation is improved but not recovered. It will take decades for Japan to recover. There are still 12,000 people missing and families are looking for them.  

“Also, not all the victims are radioactive. The media is focusing on the nuclear plants, but many parts were not affected by this.”  

The unexpected trip to Japan did derail Harada’s studies. She was planning to take comprehensive exams in May, but now will have to wait until fall and also make up for the coursework she missed this semester. She credits the Connell School, and particularly Amar, with assisting her.   

Despite this setback, Harada has no regrets. “I’m Japanese. I’m a nurse. I have to care for the people.”