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Last week, Maya Arii, MD, a Japanese native and second-year fellow in BWH's International Emergency Medicine (IEM) Fellowship, delivered a keynote address at the Japan Festival at the London Olympics.
On behalf of Japan, Arii expressed gratitude to the rest of the world for supporting the country in the wake of its disasters in March 2011. She was particularly suited to give such an address.
On the day of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, Arii was working in the Emergency Department at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, where she was chief resident. She already knew she would be coming to BWH that summer for the two-year IEM fellowship, which was established in 2000. But just a few hours after the earthquake struck Japan, Arii received a call from IEM fellowship director, Stephanie Kayden, MD, MPH.
Kayden asked Arii if she wanted to travel to Japan to assist the country as part of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative - the humanitarian arm of Harvard University, founded in 2005 by BWH physician Michael VanRooyen, MD, MPH.
"Maya is extremely responsible and has a quiet, unassuming demeanor," said Kayden, director of the Lavine Family Humanitarian Studies Initiative. "She has done amazing fieldwork in very difficult circumstances. At the time, Japan didn't need just anybody; it needed people on the ground who spoke fluent Japanese. Because Maya is so effective at mobilizing people, speaks Japanese and has connections in the country, she was the ideal choice."
Arii jumped at the offer to go back to Japan. Three days after the disaster, she found herself on a plane to Tokyo, with little understanding of what exactly she would be doing once she reached her home country.
She couldn't have predicted that she would become the sole coordinator with the U.S. military and the only person connecting all of the moving parts in a major portion of the aid effort.
She soon learned that the Japan Medical Association (JMA) urgently needed to transport nine tons of medical supplies provided by the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) to the disaster regions, where medications and other supplies were quickly running out. Arii began making phone calls to her contacts at BWH and Partners In Health and discovered that a U.S. military aircraft carrier was standing by, ready to help. She then single-handedly made all of the necessary connections to get the nine tons of supplies onto U.S. helicopters and planes and over to the most affected regions, traveling with a police escort to one of the disaster sites.
"Moving nine tons of supplies was the largest movement of medical supplies during the entire disaster response in Japan," said Kayden. "It wouldn't have happened without Maya. No one else in the world would have been able to connect Japan, the U.S. military, JMA, JSDF and the Japan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association."
After the shipment, Arii got to work conducting post-mortem exams and issuing death certificates so that bodies could be returned to their families.
"I didn't end up doing what I expected to do," Arii said. "But Stephanie told me, ‘The most important part of humanitarian response is to meet the needs of the people, and that is what you're doing.' It was a very emotional experience."
A year after Arii's work in Japan, she returned to the country with Kayden to talk to the JMA about international standards of humanitarian response. This address drew international media attention, and coordinators for the Japan Festival at the Olympics invited Arii to speak about her experiences because of it.
"I wouldn't have had the opportunity to go back to Japan if it weren't for BWH," Arii said. "Without that support, this wouldn't have happened."
After completing her fellowship next year, Arii hopes to develop humanitarian response education and training programs and continue to assist in the development of emergency medicine in Japan.