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Southland Trauma Specialists Join Kobe Relief Effort

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A medical team made up of 18 Southern California trauma-care specialists Sunday became the first private U.S. relief effort to reach this devastated city since an earthquake struck Tuesday.

Most offers of foreign assistance have been refused by the Japanese government. But this effort succeeded because a persistent Torrance businessman and his twin brother living in Yokohama worked the phones for three days before lining up a Kobe-area Parliament member, an Osaka-based customs official and a Japan Air Lines executive who could cajole a sluggish bureaucracy to accept Western aid.

The Parliament member, Ryuichi Dohi, said the offer was initially refused because his colleagues were embarrassed that they could not provide first-class hotels and food for the visitors.

“You gotta be kidding!” Dohi recalled yelling at his colleagues. “Let them in, and let them in now!”

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After traveling by train, bus and ferry to Kobe’s harbor, the weary medical team bunked down on the wide-open lower deck of a Japanese coast guard cutter made available by Japan’s Self Defense Force. The doctors and nurses had had a long journey, emotionally and physically. None had more than 48 hours’ warning of the voyage they were about to take.

Kim Bingaman, a 35-year-old Northridge Hospital Medical Center critical care nurse, said she begged to go to Kobe because “healing people is what our profession is all about.” Yet she knew that it would not be easy. “I know we’re going to be helping and crying at the same time,” she said.

Jim Davis, 43, a clinical nursing teacher at Pasadena City College who also works as a first-aid nurse at Universal Studios, said that both his employers urged him to go--even though he gave them just a day’s notice.

“I put in for vacation time for the week I’ll be away, but my boss at Universal said, ‘No, you’re doing a humanitarian thing, and I’ll get the week comped,’ ” Davis said.

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The relief effort is more personal for one member of the team.

Michael Hill, a paramedic at Magic Mountain, has 12 aunts and uncles plus 19 cousins in Kobe.

He believes that his family members survived the earthquake without injury, although most lost their homes. But the house next door to the home where his mother grew up collapsed, crushing the family of her best childhood friend. “My uncle heard them all screaming that they couldn’t get out,” Hill said.

This morning, the Valencia resident donned his blue paramedic jumpsuit and white hard hat in the hold of the coast guard cutter Mizuho and joined the others eager to help out in any way they can.

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They know that they may not be able to practice surgery or dispense medicine because they’re not licensed in Japan. Instead, they will probably work under the direction of Japanese doctors.

The team’s journey was launched in the mind of the Torrance businessman, Arthur Johnson. A former Army brat whose mother is Japanese, he heard news accounts of the Kobe earthquake on the radio during his morning commute last week and vowed to help. He called a staff meeting at his Japanese-language consulting firm to discuss the disaster that morning and resolved afterward to throw the company’s resources into any effort made by established relief agencies.

But phone calls to the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles and to the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society revealed no relief plans. So Johnson, a former missionary, quickly formed such an organization himself, called it the Kansai Christian Relief Fund after the geographical area occupied by Kobe and began to tap his religious contacts for money.

“I think God prepared me all my life for this,” Johnson said.

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He learned that water and blankets were urgently needed, so he contacted companies in the Southland. First to comply was Yosemite Waters, a Fullerton-based bottled-water company whose president offered to supply as much water as Johnson could figure out how to ship. Next, a garment manufacturer in Los Angeles offered to sew blankets out of some leftover fleece.

Johnson then called Japan Air Lines and persuaded Morris Simoncelli, a New York-based public affairs executive at the company, to ship the cargo free. Another executive put Johnson in touch with a Japanese customs official in Osaka who would have to agree to clear the goods without charging tariffs.

Hiroaki Ushiumi, the deputy director of customs at Osaka, replied within a few hours--extremely fast for a Japanese bureaucrat, Dohi said. And Ushiumi, in turn, put Johnson in touch with the Maritime Self Defense Agency, which would transport the goods by ship from Osaka to the Kobe Cities Disaster Relief Agency.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s twin brother in Yokohama, Danny, called to say that medical assistance was also urgently needed. So Johnson called hospitals associated with USC and UCLA, as well as Centinela Hospital, and asked their physician referral departments to spread the word.

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“The news spread like wildfire,” Johnson said. “Then the media got it out, and it went crazy. Donations and offers to help started flooding out of the woodwork.”

Suddenly, the day-old Kansai Christian Relief Fund became a leading U.S. relief organization for Kobe.

At each hospital, doctors took the lead to organize volunteers. By Wednesday night, Johnson had the 18 doctors, nurses and paramedics he had hoped for, plus 60 more to put on a waiting list for a team he hopes will follow next week.

Northridge Hospital Medical Center doctors and nurses took 11 of the slots of the first squad. They were assembled by emergency room physician Ed Lowder, who said he was bombarded by volunteer requests the minute he started talking about it.

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“All of us who work in ER are adrenaline junkies,” he said. “We are attracted to disasters because we know that we can help.”


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