Lessons from Sendai

As rescue efforts continue in Mexico after a major earthquake, it's a reminder of how vulnerable we are to natural disasters, particularly the frail and elderly. Earlier this year, Dr. Goldman visited the former site of a nursing home in Japan, where 43 residents as well as staff were killed in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The nursing home's director wanted to share the story of what happened that day, in the hopes others would learn from the tragedy.
A makeshift shrine in Japan, a memorial for staff and patients of a nursing home who died in the 2011 tsunami. (Brian Goldman)
A woman cries while sitting amid the rubble of Natori, Japan, on March 13, 2011, two days after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck the country. (Asahi Shimbun/Reuters)

Earlier this week, Mexico was struck by a devastating earthquake.

As the loss of life and injuries mount, the country's healthcare system and its workers will no doubt struggle to keep up.

Rescue efforts are still ongoing, but one of the more hopeful stories saw an elderly woman being rescued - pulled from the rubble. 

It was a reminder of just how vulnerable the frail and elderly are when a disaster strikes.

It's a story that Keiko Sasaki knows all too well.

She is the director of the the Urayasu Special Elderly Nursing Home in Natori. Japan, about 12 km from Sendai, the largest city in northeastern Japan.

Dr. Goldman. the host of White Coat, Black Art, met Sasaki when he was in Japan in February doing research for his upcoming book. She insisted on taking him to the nursing home's former site, which was largely destroyed during the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

Sixteen-thousand people died in the disaster, and 43 of them lived at the nursing home.

All around me, houses and other buildings that once stood there were gone.- Dr. Brian Goldman. on visiting a nursing home outside of Sendai , Japan 

Sasaki says there was a plan to follow that day: Evacuate the residents to a nearby building stocked with provisions, and wait for help.  

But just before the tsunami hit, the local police told staff to instead evacuate the residents by car and bus to a local junior high school.  

"They divided their patients into groups to take them....But there was only one route to get there and it was completely jammed. They got stuck in traffic. In the end, before they could arrive at school, the tsunami reached them, " Sasaki says.  

The tsunami-devastated Natori city in Miyagi prefecture is seen in this image taken March 11, 2011. (REUTERS/Kyodo)

She told Dr. Goldman she wants to tell their story, so that others might learn from it. 

"Because we know what happened the day of the earthquake, and we don't want anyone to repeat the same mistakes, we want to share the facts as far as we know. We hope it will help people when they confront tragedy in the future." - Keiko Sasaki

Staff were able to save ten people, mainly by hanging on to stable furniture.

"My co-workers held their floating patients in place while everything else around them was being swept away by the tsunami." 

Some of the patients ended up dying of hypothermia after surviving the storm and earthquake. Others survived by burning rubble and then boiling water, sugar and salt to eat. 

"That's how they survived the first day," Sasaki says. 

On the second day staff carried patients out on their backs  to a another building where there were emergency provisions on higher floors. 

Some patients' hearts failed, and the care workers had to look after them as best they could, as there were no doctors or nurses with them. 

Sasaki says the remains of the nursing home draw many people who want to pay their respects.

"Because many people still visit here, we wanted to keep this place as a kind of memorial where people can learn about the earthquake." 

Special thanks to Haruka Asatani who provided translation and voice work so we could tell this story.