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Survivor of Hiroshima Radiation Uses Nuclear Medicine to Save Lives - 2004-08-08

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing tens of thousands of people and leveling almost every major structure in and around the city. A second bomb exploded three days later over Nagasaki, with similar devastating effect. In the months and years after the blasts, thousands more people would die of cancer caused by exposure to radiation. One Japanese woman who lost friends and family to the Hiroshima bomb's radiation is now a doctor at a major U.S. hospital, using radiation to cure cancer patients. Dr. Ritsuko Komaki is also teaching everyone she meets about the need to go beyond tragedy and look for the positive in life.

Patients with lung cancer crowd into the waiting room at the University of Texas Medical Center's M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic every day, seeking treatment and support. Among the doctors who are there to help them is a diminutive woman doctor named Ritsuko Komaki, who has been working to alleviate suffering and death from cancer ever since she was an adolescent in the city of Hiroshima. She and her family moved to that city shortly after the end of the war. But many children who had been in the city at the time of the bombing later developed deadly cancer. At the age of 11, Ritsuko Komaki saw her close friend Sadako confined to a hospital bed desperately using the Japanese art of paper folding, called origami, to ward off the cancer. "In Japan, we say if you can fold the crane by origami paper, if you can make 1,000 cranes, then you will get better, you will recover from the disease. Every time she had to take medication, it was wrapped with wax paper and she was [using it] and folding origami birds. She really wanted to get better," she says.

Dr. Komaki says her friend Sadako was a bright, cheerful and active girl who was brimming with life when she was stricken by the disease. "I met Sadako when I was in elementary school. She was very athletic and I used to run with her. She was very fast. But she developed shortness of breath and she was found to be anemic and then she was found to have leukemia," she says.

With the help of her classmates, Ritsuko Komaki raised over $100,000 to build a monument to the girl. Today, the monument at Hiroshima's Peace park draws thousands of visitors from around the world who see Sadako's struggle as symbolic of the fight against cancer and the horror of nuclear war.

But the most impressive and enduring monument is not the statue, but Dr. Komaki herself. Inspired by the loss of her friend, she dedicated herself to the fight against cancer and became a radiation oncologist at one of the world's top cancer centers.

Veronica Garza, who works closely with her as a physician assistant, says she has seen few doctors as dedicated and as caring as Dr. Komaki. "She has a wonderful bedside manner. All her patients love her. She is also very busy, but all her patients are willing to wait because they know that when she gets in with them she gives them complete time to answer whatever questions come up, not only regarding their radiation or their lung cancers, but family problems, emotional problems, everything," she says. "She is just wonderful."

Ms. Garza says very few of her patients know anything about Dr, Komaki's story, and that she lost not only her friend Sadako, but many family members as well to cancers caused by radioactive fallout from the bomb.

Dr. Komaki says the tragedy of what happened in Hiroshima in 1945 did not make her angry at those who dropped the bomb or those who started the war. She says the spirit of her lost friend Sadako was one of goodness, not bitterness. "I think one message must be that if anything really bad happens in life, we can make a more positive side rather than hate the people or fight with somebody," she says. "It never ends."

She applies this principle in her work every day, using the very radiation that, in too large a dose, can kill, to fight cancer. She says modern technology is making it possible to target cancer cells very closely with treatments that do minimal damage to the healthy cells around them. She is also aware of new threats of nuclear attacks possibly from terrorists and has worked with other experts to devise ways of dealing with a potential incident.

Dr. Komaki says much of what experts know about radiation's effects comes from studies done in Hiroshima in the years after the atomic bomb attack. She says careful study of the victims over time has helped doctors understand what radiation does and how its effects can be minimized. "So all the things we have learned from Hiroshima is there. The medical teams and especially radiation oncologists and physicists know how to handle that," she says.

But Dr. Ritsuko Komaki's most fervent desire is that no such use of nuclear weapons ever happen again. She says the world needs to focus on healing and the peaceful resolution of conflicts so that the horrible experience of Hiroshima is not repeated.