My Red Cross Red Crescent story
Interview with an Indonesian Red Cross Society nurse, now working for the Japanese Red Cross Society.
The scene outside the bus window was apocalyptic. It resembled the city of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bomb in August 1945. Where a town once stood was now detritus. The frames of shattered buildings dotted a flattened landscape of rubble, twisted metal, upturned cars and boats.
Suwarti, dressed in her Japanese Red Cross uniform, sat and stared, expressionless, at the carnage. “It’s upsetting. I’m speechless,” she told a journalist filming her for a TV news report.
The Indonesian nurse had travelled to the town of Yamada, in north-east Japan, with five colleagues from the Himeji Red Cross hospital, more than 800 kilometres away. It was April 2011 and around six weeks after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck under the Pacific Ocean and sent towering tsunami waves crashing into communities along the Tohoku coastline.
The destruction brought back memories for Suwarti of her experiences in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, following the devastating tsunami of 26 December 2004. She arrived there with a relief team from her public hospital in the capital, Jakarta, about a week after tectonic plates ruptured off the coast. “Another team had already started treating survivors at a makeshift evacuation centre, but there was a shortage of water, food and medicine,” says the 36-year-old Java native, sitting in a meeting room in her Himeji hospital.
“It took about two weeks to come to terms with some of the shocking scenes I saw,” she says of that time almost a decade ago. “I felt tired and kept thinking about all the people crying and those who had lost their families and houses, and didn’t know what to do.”
Seven years later, in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture in 2011, Suwarti found herself at a high school that was serving as an evacuation centre for 400 local residents.
“At the evacuation centre, there were six high-school students who lost their parents in the tsunami. I spoke several times to one who was suffering a lot. She thanked me for coming and told me she wanted to become a nurse like me. I also talked to many elderly women, for I understood how important it was to talk to people as part of this kind of care.”
Suwarti already had a deep appreciation for the value of psychosocial support after her experience in Aceh in 2004. “When we arrived in Aceh, people were appreciative of us,” she says. “But more than just treating injuries, it was important to talk and hold people. Mental support, I realized, was a vital part of being a nurse there.”
Before heading out to respond to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Suwarti was prepared. She received disaster relief training, including guidance on how to counsel survivors and the bereaved, and she completed another course at her hospital in the summer of 2013.
Suwarti’s determination to help in Tohoku can be traced back to her experiences in Aceh, where she learned that the Japanese Red Cross had sent a medical team to the area.
“When my country was in need, lots of different countries helped us, including the Japanese Red Cross,” she says. “In fact, the head of the ER [emergency response] here [in Himeji] spent a year and a half in Aceh and the head surgeon went there for a year. So I felt that if I could pass the national exam and had the chance, I would really like to go and help those people in Tohoku.”
Suwarti first arrived in Japan in 2008 on a nursing programme set up by Japan and Indonesia. Despite her extensive ER and intensive care experience in her home country, she still had to pass Japan’s national nursing exam. The biggest hurdle was learning Japanese, including medical terminology.
Suwarti continued to study intensively for the five-hour nursing exam and finally, after her third attempt, she became one of only 16 foreign nurses — from nearly 400 — to pass.
In 2013, Suwarti shared her experiences in Tohoku with trainee nurses and staff at one of Indonesia’s top nursing schools, and she has been asked to help produce an official disaster preparedness and response manual.
“In 2004, we weren’t prepared for that size of disaster and had no experience of disaster relief. Therefore, we were grateful to receive support from the Japanese Red Cross. But Indonesia still needs to learn more about disaster relief. I’m very happy to have joined the Japanese Red Cross where I can learn these kinds of skills.
“Disaster can strike at any time and affect anyone, so as a nurse, I felt I had a duty to help in Iwate. I also now feel that I would like to do whatever I can to help, should another disaster strike in the future,” she says. “As a member of the Red Cross, I strongly feel it’s my duty to help anyone affected by disaster — no matter what their ethnicity, religion or nationality.”
By Nick Jones
Nick Jones is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo.