Nursing students who would make Florence Nightingale proud
-Japan Diary by Francis Markus in Ishinomaki-


“That’s the spirit! But gracious me, what a state of affairs!,” I can almost hear Florence Nightingale saying.

Actually it’s a bust of her that we’ve just come across. She’s standing forlornly amid the mud, furniture and ruined textbooks, strewn every which way by the force of the tsunami, in what used to be a Red Cross nursing college.

We have come just a short distance from the Kitakamigawa river, which opens out into the sea in this once pretty port town. Its waters are calm and peaceful today, but on 11 March, a wall of water surged up this channel, crashing through the college, and forcing the 120 student nurses and teachers to evacuate to ever higher ground.

(Photo: Ms. Mieko Kudo, Vice Principal of the Ishinomaki Red Cross Nursing College, standing amid the mud)

Standing in the middle of all the mess inside the ruined college, is the Vice Principal, Mieko Kudo.

Just as Florence might have been, she too is proud of her fledgling nurses: “Our students were very active and applied themselves to the work without feeling tired; they were very proactive and seized the chance to learn what to do in a disaster situation without equipment, without bandages etc…” as they helped survivors who had fled to safety in face of the tsunami and found refuge in an evacuation centre.

It wasn’t until the third day that help came to relieve them; “as they supported their teachers who worked shifts overnight, they volunteered to stay up and help to take the sick and injured to the toilet.”

(Photo: Even an approximately 1-meter high Nightingale bust was washed away by tsunami.)

What we see now though, is that things are of course much calmer, with third year nursing students resuming their normal lives, taking practical training in the Ishinomaki Red Cross hospital, which was the centre of the relief operation in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

But as 27 year old Yu Murakami recalls those momentous few days, her eyes fill with tears. “It’s the first time that I have actually cried about it,” she explains, almost as an apology. “At first, all we thought about was escaping, but then we realised that there were many elderly people with crutches and wheelchairs.” The elderly were dependent on the nurses; “What kept us going was the thought of what we could do for these people.”

When speaking to one of the nursing tutors, Assistant Professor Takeshi Niinuma, he too says that he finds it difficult to speak about the tragic events to his colleagues who have lost his loved ones in the tsunami.

(Photo: Ms. Yu Murakami, a student of Ishinomaki Red Cross Nursing College)

I am inspired to see how despite all they’ve been through, Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers always continue to get on with their selfless work. Here in Japan however, there are many difficult emotions to manage following a disaster such as this. I worry for these Florence Nightingales, how and when they will be able to address all the feelings they have inside.

There is little time for these nurses to think of themselves though, with so much to be done each day, and when so many across the community are suffering the emotional impact of the disaster. One senior nurse on the ward we visit tells me that significant numbers of attempted suicides, many of them linked to the disaster, are turning up in Emergency, downstairs.

After the hospital, our last stop is the campus of a local university, where the nursing college has rented some space in order to be able to continue functioning after its building was rendered unusable by the tsunami.

(Photo: Mr. Takeshi Niinuma, Assistant Professor of Japanese Red Cross Hiroshima College of Nursing)

We look in on a class, where students are watching a foreign video, explained by their tutor, about epileptic seizures and how to respond to them.

One student tells me: “We need more space, because at the moment we have only these classrooms, so we even have to have lunch in our classroom,” and we can see his point, noticing that the only place for the nursing students to practice making beds is on the upstairs landing.

The plan is for the Japanese Red Cross Society to use some of the funds donated through Red Cross and Red Crescent societies throughout the world to help build a new nursing college.

(Photo: A student practicing making beds)

It will certainly take time. But I hope they find a safe place for the both the bust of Florence Nightingale and the students, who have been through so much already, and still continue to prove themselves so impressively.