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Deadly Cold Weather Strikes Tsunami-Hit Hospital

  • Henry Ridgwell

Nurse Tomimo Goto prepares medicine in the darkened ward of the Sen-en Hospital in Tagajo, Japan

Nurse Tomimo Goto prepares medicine in the darkened ward of the Sen-en Hospital in Tagajo, Japan

For the survivors of the tsunami that struck Japan earlier this month, the daily struggle to keep warm and find enough food continues. In the town of Tagajo on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, the Sen-en Hospital has been without electricity, gas or running water for nearly two weeks. There are shortages of basic medicines. Several elderly patients have died because of the freezing temperatures in the wards.

A 90-year-old patient at the Tagajo Sen-en hospital screams out that she is cold. The temperature inside is a few degrees above freezing. On some nights, it drops below zero Celsius. There is no electricity, gas or water.

The cold and the shortage of medicine have claimed the lives of 12 elderly patients since the waves roared through the lower floors of this hospital.

Deputy Head Doctor Yoichi Hashiguchi tucks more blankets around one of the 50 patients still under his care. He says conditions are very tough.

“Most of the patients here have had strokes or cerebral infections, so they can’t move by themselves,” he says. “The thing we need the most is the special milk, which we feed them through tubes. We don’t have any of that so they aren’t getting enough nutrition.”

In the darkened wards the nurses do the best they can. They salvaged what medicines they could from the wreckage.

They’ve begun heating bottles of water on a makeshift propane stove, to use as hot water bottles.

There’s no laundry service and while there are enough clean bedclothes to last a few days, dirty sheets are starting to pile up.

“It’s really cold and I can’t do much for my patients so I get really depressed when I get home," says Tomomi Goto, who is one of the nurses working 18-hour shifts. "Today I felt like I couldn’t do anything, it makes me so sad,” she adds. “But if I look miserable at work the patients will get more worried. So I always try to smile.”

The floor of the nurses' station is covered with Japanese futons, thin mattresses on which the nurses grab a few hours sleep.

With their cars in the hospital grounds wrecked by the tsunami and a gasoline shortage gripping the area, they can’t easily get home. So they stay here refusing to abandon their patients.

Dr. Satsuki Ishigaki says the conditions are starting to take a toll on the staff. “All the doctors and patients also suffered in the tsunami. Many lost their houses too. So everyone is very stressed and it’s bad for our health too,” she said.

A nationwide gasoline shortage has delayed the delivery of vital supplies.

The army has installed a generator, which operates for two hours in the evening and is a vital window for the doctors to perform the most important tasks.

Then, darkness descends on the Sen-en hospital.

Dr. Hashiguchi uses a solar light, designed for use in the garden, to do his nighttime rounds. He says he and the other staff are just doing their jobs.

“I really want to get things back to normal as soon as possible and bring all the patients back here,” he says. “I want to reopen the hospital again and support the people of this town.”

About 200 patients were transferred to nearby hospitals. Those who remain are the most serious cases.

In normal times, Japan has a state-of the art health service; its people live the longest in the world. But here in Miyagi prefecture, normality has gone.

The tsunami itself took tens of thousands of lives. It has left behind a deadly legacy for the most vulnerable of those who survived.