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A Mission of Mercy Lures Medical Team

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Television images of eastern Japan’s brutal earthquake last week rocked the staff of the Northridge Hospital Medical Center emergency room. Terrible memories of a Monday morning one year ago flooded back, evoking a rare feeling for physicians and nurses--powerlessness.

Although the memories won’t quit, their bout with powerlessness has.

On Saturday, five Northridge doctors and eight nurses--self-professed “adrenaline junkies"--headed to Kobe with five other Southland medical personnel on a mission of mercy and pay-back.

“We got a lot of help from a lot of people last January,” said emergency room nurse Julie Meyer, a few hours before boarding an Osaka-bound flight from Los Angeles International Airport. “Now it’s our turn to help them out. At the very least, we can tell them they can survive and rebuild.”

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The mission is the brainchild, appropriately, of a former missionary.

Arthur Johnson, a Japanese American who owns a language school in Torrance, hatched the idea after watching initial television reports of the quake. He resolved to round up as many doctors and emergency supplies as possible, something he’s never done.

With the help of friends, he distributed memos to Southland hospitals and aired his ideas on local television stations.

In two days, dozens of doctors, nurses and paramedics responded.

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The ones without up-to-date passports were eliminated. Within 48 hours, the remainder had hastily rearranged their lives to make Saturday afternoon’s flight provided for free by Japan Air Lines.

Upon arrival in Osaka, they will be met by Johnson’s church and business associates, and shepherded by boat to makeshift hospitals set up in junior high school yards and civic auditoriums around Kobe.

Three anesthesiologists, a general surgeon and an emergency room doctor--along with nurse Meyer--answered the call from Northridge.

They realized they will not be able to operate or dispense drugs because they lack Japanese medical licenses, but they look forward to providing any help.

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Said ER physician Ed Lowder: “We all went into medicine to help people, and this is a place where people need help.”

Still, the relief role is critical.

“When an emergency happens, your adrenaline is up--but then you get burnt out and you have to go home to your own destroyed house and possibly lost friends,” said Lowder, who worked 30 hours in a row in a parking lot at his hospital after the Northridge quake. “You can’t stay on the adrenaline high forever. You need people to come help.”

The doctors and nurses expect to at least perform first aid, assist with surgery, treat infections and help prevent the outbreak of contagious diseases.

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They will bring the lessons of Northridge to Kobe--the pressing need for clean water and the need for organization.

Valencia paramedic Michael Hill expects that emergency care is also likely to be needed. A Japanese American who counts 12 aunts and uncles and 19 cousins in Kobe, Hill packed his kit with a hard hat and jumpsuits. He also had emergency medicines and phrases translated into Japanese for him by a cousin.

Typewritten on a little sheet he carries are phrases such as: “Tell me with your hand where it hurts.”

With the doctors and nurses gathered at Los Angeles airport, their stacks of backpacks and earnest faces made the gates at Japan Air Lines look more like the first day of summer camp than an impromptu medical conference.

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Johnson told them to prepare to bunk in sleeping bags on the freezing floor of Kobe City Hall, or if possible, they will stay at the homes of local church congregants.

Nancy Williams, a Japanese American nurse who works at Harbor/UCLA Medical Center, explained why she dropped everything, and will be leaving her 3-year-old son for the first time.

“It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.


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