News & Events

Mass. medical teams sidelined in favor of technical aid

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By Akilah Johnson and Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

The Massachusetts medical community was there in force after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast in 2005. About 40 local surgeons and nurses flew to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after last year’s devastating earthquake there. They even traveled to Bam, Iran, after an earthquake toppled buildings and killed thousands in 2003.

But their phones have been largely silent since last week’s twin disasters in Japan.

Japan, a highly industrialized nation with a health care system that remains mostly intact, has little need for outside medical expertise, but it has requested more technical assistance after Friday’s earthquake and tsunami. It has deployed search-and-rescue crews from overseas, consulted international scientists to try to stave off the threat of a meltdown at a nuclear plant, and received help from engineers with geo-mapping skills.

“People sort of expect that there will be a large international humanitarian response, but there’s not much need for general responders,’’ said Dr. Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and emergency medicine specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

VanRooyen said there is a tremendous need for help from responders who speak Japanese, have direct disaster experience, or have technical skills applicable for radiation emergencies.

“The university isn’t full of those people, nor is the United States, for that reason,’’ he said. “We’re looking to mobilize people, but only if they are absolutely appropriate.’’

Throughout New England, groups and individuals are doing the same thing.

A crew from the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth Port is rushing to Tokyo today to meet with animal rescuers, veterinarians, and government agencies to assess how displaced pets and livestock are tracked and then figure out the need for medical supplies, clean water, and shelters.

Terra Friedrichs, an activist in Acton, is building an interactive database of the international aid and relief organizations helping Japan. The goal is for the database to serve as a one-stop, online resource for Japanese agencies in the crisis.

And engineers in Portsmouth, N.H., have been fine-tuning hand-held devices to help US Marines collect and analyze data and then deploy resources for such things as damaged bridges and airports, as well as for managing the sick and wounded.

“The access to real-time data is extremely critical because you don’t know where to send emergency personnel if you don’t have access to information,’’ said Tom Gerrish, a field operations manager for New Hampshire’s Global Relief Technologies.

Not draining already tenuous resources in Japan is another reason why members of the medical community said they are limiting their assistance to the island nation that has been crippled by the massive earthquake last week that spawned a tsunami that has left more than 10,000 dead, thousands homeless, and millions without water, power, heat, or transportation.

So far, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative has sent only two emergency physicians from Brigham and Women’s, both originally from Japan, to help those displaced by the disaster, VanRooyen said.

Also, a former fellow from the Harvard School of Public Health who lives in Japan is serving as the on-the-ground contact for the organization, VanRooyen said.

And a small group of doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital traveled to Sendai, Japan, on their own to help.

“We were put on alert, but the alert has been canceled,’’ said Dr. Susan Briggs, codirector of the office of disaster response at Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health. “The US has offered everything, and they specifically asked for search-and-rescue and logistics.’’

Search teams from more than a dozen nations were bound for Japan yesterday. A combined search squad of 150 people and a dozen dogs arrived from Los Angeles County and Fairfax, Va. Teams from China and South Korea — two longtime rivals of Japan — were also expected.

The other priority, Briggs said, is the radiation threat from damaged nuclear power plants.

Meghan Irons can be reached at Akilah Johnson can be reached at

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