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Learning to Listen from the Heart

by Izumi Nakano
Japan

Mr. Tanno at workMs. Nakano (left) supporting one of patients

I am a nursing care manager and one of my responsibilities is to put together care plans tailored specifically to the individual needs of people who require nursing care. This involves both consulting the patients and liaising with nursing establishments to ensure patients receive the care they need.

My home is in the town of Futaba, 4 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The area that I worked in also lies within a 20 kilometer radius of the nuclear plant. The March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused three of the reactors at the power plant to go into meltdown. As a result, all residents were ordered to evacuate the area and my husband and I were forced to move from one evacuation center to the next.

Following the evacuation, I was beside myself with worry as I didn't know what had happened to my patients. There was no way to contact them, so all I could do was to pray earnestly for their safety.

As time passed, I began to hear about the dreadful conditions that patients were being subjected to. For example, one bed-ridden lady, despite not being fit enough to withstand being moved, was denied admission to the first evacuation center she was taken to as it was already full. As she had to be evacuated from the 20 kilometer zone, she was taken by bus to the next shelter. However, the journey took many hours, and, sadly, she was found dead on arrival, having passed away in the passenger seat. Another patient who sought refuge outside Fukushima prefecture was taken to a long-term care facility but when the staff there found out that he had come from Fukushima, they feared he had been contaminated by radiation and turned him away.

It was finally at the end of April that I was able to settle down in Iwaki City. Since then, I have been engaged in helping locate those who had previously lived in nursing homes and find temporary residences for them. I worked with the municipalities and nursing care facilities to ensure the smooth transfer of residents. Soon after, I was assigned to look after evacuees in Iwaki City who require nursing care.

Following the unrest surrounding the nuclear accident, the situation regarding evacuees in need of nursing care was extremely difficult. The stress of starting a new life in an unfamiliar place, as well as having to live in cramped, temporary housing, weighed heavily on care givers and care receivers alike, so much so that it caused discord among family members. Countless patients expressed sentiments such as: "Ever since being brought to this shelter, I’ve lost all motivation" or, "I don’t know anybody here. I am so lonely." Desperately yearning to return to their homes, yet not being able to do so, these patients gradually lost hope and with it, their will to live. In some cases, patients even lost their physical strength to the extent that they could no longer walk.

What I found most agonizing was how, although I wished to listen to their struggles, the patients would not easily open up and confide in me. Many of them suffered in silence because they felt that no one could understand their predicament.

Sometimes, on the way home from work I wished I could return to my hometown of Futaba and I would break down and cry. However, thanks to the support and encouragement of fellow Soka Gakkai members, I was able to get through these difficult times.

I spurred myself on by telling myself that now was the time to utilize my Buddhist practice and, as I began chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo earnestly, a shift began to take place in my attitude toward patients. I resolved to wholeheartedly encourage each person and to reassure them that they were not alone in their struggle. I also made efforts to visit patients more frequently to offer support. I decided to chant until I reached a positive breakthrough in my relationship with each and every one of them.

I began to talk less and listen more. At other times, I exchanged friendly banter with patients and tried to make them laugh. Gradually, they began to open up and to confide in me.

One day, one of my patients, an elderly woman, sobbed as I held her in my arms. She thought she was of no use to others and a burden upon her family. She said she wished she had died on the day of the earthquake. I comforted her and told her that what she was saying was not true and that just being alive is, in itself, wondrous--that human life is the most precious thing we have. We both wept together and at that moment I felt as though I could see a faint light at the end of a dark tunnel. When I am able to encourage those that have gone through similar experiences and hardships as I have, I feel optimistic. I feel as though my experience of living in evacuation shelters has not been in vain. Needless to say, my day-to-day life remains challenging. However, I feel deep fulfillment when I think about how overcoming my own struggles can give hope to others.

I re-encountered the old lady who had wept in my arms following our first meeting. She was in high spirits and had been able to reconnect with her family and have heartfelt conversation with them. She asked me if I would be willing to listen to her if she ever needed my help again. I replied, with a big smile, that next time I would like to seek her advice!

[Adapted from an article in the February 11, 2012, issue of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan; photo courtesy of Seikyo Shimbun]

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