Visit to the IDF Field Hospital in Minami Sanrikue: an Insider’s View

by Philip Rosenfeld

It was early in the morning on April 5th when I had the opportunity to witness firsthand the impact the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) mission had on the lives of the Japanese. These were people among the most severely affected by the tsunami. It was also a look at the power and potential of organized cooperation in the Jewish world.

I left the safety of Tokyo and met Israeli Ambassador Ben-Shitrit in Sendai and followed him to Minami Sanriku, the town in which the IDF field hospital is located. Upon arriving at the field hospital at approximately 8:30 a.m., we were met by Dr. Ofer Merin and other key staff members who, despite a busy schedule, graciously took the time to explain the field hospital operations and the role the field hospital plays in the affected area.

Minami Sanriku is a coastal fishing town located in northern Miyagi Prefecture. Prior to the earthquake and tsunami, Minami Sanriku had a population of approximately 18,000 people of which it is estimated that approximately 1,200 individuals perished in the disaster with another 5,500 people being left homeless. The destruction and devastation that I witnessed in Minami Sanriku was utter and complete. The town simply no longer exists. The scene is difficult to describe in words but it looked as though a bomb had destroyed the area.

The IDF field hospital team arrived in Minami Sanriku on Monday, March 28th and began its operations that very same day. The field hospital, located on the outskirts of Minami Sanriku adjacent to a gymnasium that is being utilized as an evacuation shelter, has a staff that includes thirteen doctors, seven nurses and approximately thirty support/logistics members. Specialist services provided include ENT, internal medicine, gynecology, obstetrics, ophthalmology, orthopedics, pediatrics and urology. The hospital also provides x-ray imaging and is equipped with an intensive care unit, medical laboratory and pharmacy with medication available to treat an extensive array of illnesses and diseases. The IDF practitioners work in close consultation with local Japanese doctors and this alone is extraordinary. In many cases the local Japanese doctors accompany their patients to the field hospital. As of the morning of April 5th, the IDF field hospital staff had treated approximately 130 patients on site and an additional number of individuals in the surrounding area either in their home or in an evacuation shelter.

The IDF practitioners provide a vital service to the affected community and the equipment donated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), including a portable ultrasound unit, an endoscope, and LumiView (head lamp with amplifier) also plays a critical role in enabling them to do so. In many cases, the care they provide is otherwise not available within a two hour radius of the field hospital. For patients with chronic conditions and pregnant patients, this service is critical.

As of April 5th, Dr. Moshe Pinkert, an IDF obstetrician together with Iris Bedrak, an IDF midwife, have used the portable ultrasound to examine fifteen pregnant women, twelve of whom were examined in their own home. According to Eriko Takahashi, a midwife at Minami Sanriku’s Shizugawa Public Hospital, which was destroyed by the tsunami, local authorities have been able to confirm the whereabouts of twenty pregnant women in the Minami Sanriku area since the disaster. Accordingly, as of April 5th, the portable ultrasound has been used in conjunction with the examination of 75% of the pregnant women in the area.

The portable ultrasound gives Dr. Pinkert and Iris Bedrak the ability to examine not only the patient’s physical condition but to also provide the pregnant mother with a large degree of comfort and relief knowing that her unborn child is fine after all of the strain and anxiety of the past several weeks. In the words of Eriko Takahashi, “When visiting patients at their home, Dr. Pinkert and Iris have brought joy to entire families by giving them the chance to share in the experience of seeing the healthy fetus, which under normal circumstances they would not be able to do as a family. Children are clapping as they, their parents and grandparents, see the ultrasound images and share in this wonderful experience.”

The endoscope and LumiView are used by the field hospital’s ENT specialist, Dr. Udi Katzenell. According to Dr. Katzenell, “the equipment donated by the JDC really upgrades the ENT services.” It is important to note that the LumiView has its own power unit enabling Dr. Katzenell to take the device on visits into the field such as at a nearby evacuation shelter. During my visit, I saw Dr. Katzenell use both the endoscope and LumiView to examine a patient at the field hospital who he diagnosed as having an acute blockage that at some point would require surgery.

The work the IDF field hospital team has performed in Minami Sanriku has been extraordinary, not only in terms of the actual medical care delivered but also in terms of the understanding and goodwill that it has engendered with the Japanese people. This is not a tie that will be forgotten. As Dr. Ofer Merin told me, “The importance of the delegation goes beyond the number of patients treated; it goes to the heart of the relationship between countries. It is a milestone to be able to work in Japan and to assist the people of Japan, and it is a privilege for me to be part of it.”

Philip Rosenfeld has lived and worked in Japan for sixteen years. He is the Vice President and Treasurer of The Jewish Community of Japan and is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of JapanQuest Journeys, a boutique firm specializing in customized luxury journeys to Japan. He is currently serving as The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Japan.

Photos courtesy Hannah Rosenfeld
Copyright Asian Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.

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