Mutual experience fosters life-saving link

Toru Kaneko Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent

The playroom in the pediatric hematological ward at a medical facility in Gomel Province in southeastern Belarus was filled with the laughter of children trying to read Japanese words written on shikishi cards.

"I know the words 'ai' (love), 'shiawase' (happiness) and 'kenko' (health) because the Japanese people taught me," a 12-year-old girl said.

The children look forward to the visits by members of the Japan Chernobyl Foundation, who come to the state center for radiation medicine and human ecology twice or three times a year.

The center, a treatment facility for the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster victims, is one of the facilities that currently receives support from the foundation. About 30 patients at the center, aged from 1 to 18 years old are fighting leukemia or other hematologic diseases at the center.

"Sterile rooms, blood refrigerators and examination equipment--all the medical equipment here--was donated by them [the foundation]," Irina Romashevskaya, the head of the ward, said appreciatively.

She said she was particularly grateful for the foundation's work because when it started supporting the hospital in 1991, their ability to treat patients at the ward had hit rock bottom, with the fatality rate at the ward reaching 90 percent.

The Chernobyl accident left 70 percent of the province contaminated, making it the worst affected area in the country.

However, the economic chaos that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the ward, which was part of the province's state hospital at the time, was unable to secure adequate facilities or equipment.

The foundation provided the Belarusian doctors not only with equipment but also with training in Japan so that they could learn the most effective treatment methods. They also mastered peripheral blood cell transplantation, a leukemia treatment method commonly carried out in industrialized countries. The fatality rate from the disease now stands at about 25 percent.

"The progress in the treatment of hematological diseases in Belarus can't be discussed without mentioning the foundation," said Igor Iskrov, who has conducted transplant operations at the state hospital.

In 2004, the hospital's pediatric hematological ward moved to the specially equipped state center. Even since the move, doctors there can ask the foundation for advice through a satellite television link up. When a doctor at the ward became seriously ill, the foundation sent drugs to the ward.

"Both our country and Japan suffered radioactive contamination. Our mutual trust will remain unchanged," Romashevskaya said emphatically.

The state pediatric blood cancer center in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, is another medical institution that has received the foundation's support.

Juri Strongin, head of the center's bone marrow transplant department who also is in charge of cell transplant operations conducted at the center, cannot forget one emergency situation two years ago. A 17-year-old boy who had just undergone a transplant operation suddenly developed kidney failure and became critically ill.

Strongin told the foundation of the situation via the satellite link, and was told that it was a rare condition from which only three out of 11 patients with the same condition in the past had survived.

As the doctors at the center were able to learn how to treat the boy, and were given access to the appropriate medicine, the patient recovered. He is reportedly a university student now.

"Without the [foundation's] advice, he would have died without a doubt," Strongin said.

The huge strides in treating young people at the facility meant the doctors there were delighted at the news that the foundation had won the Yomiuri International Cooperation Award.

"It's like someone from my family has won the award," Romashevskaya said with her hand on her heart.

However, in a sterile room at the center in Minsk, a little girl who has lost all of her hair is lying in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling.

"We want to save the lives of as many patients as possible," Romashevskaya said.

Doctors in Belarus hope that their facility will continue to receive support from Japan, so they can continue saving lives.