Caren Stelson



for all

A New Audience for Sachiko: Doctors

From left to right: Susan Freiss (Women’s International League for Peace and Justice and Madison Lanterns for Peace coor­di­na­tor), Dr. Monica Volmann (Family Medicine Physician with Physicians for Social Responsibility), Caren Stelson (author), and Mary Doherty (Public Health advi­sor at Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents)

This August, I was invit­ed to Madison, Wisconsin to share Sachiko Yasui’s sto­ry of sur­viv­ing the Nagasaki atom­ic bomb. The Women’s International League for Peace and Justice and Physicians for Social Responsibility were my hosts. I thor­ough­ly enjoyed speak­ing at Madison’s “Lanterns for Peace” event and at the Central Library, but the most sur­pris­ing venue was the University of Wisconsin’s Medical School.

Dr. Monica Volmann with Physicians for Social Responsibility reached out by email. She wrote: “I was so struck by Sachiko’s sto­ry (which I read with my 11-year-old son …) and how each one of [Sachiko’s] fam­i­ly mem­bers showed the imme­di­ate and delayed med­ical effects of their nuclear expo­sures in a dif­fer­ent way. It could­n’t have been bet­ter told for a “med­ical text­book” on the effects of radiation.”

Dr. Volmann sug­gest­ed that she and I give a lec­ture to res­i­dent MDs at the University of Wisconsin’s Medical School about the life-threatening dan­gers of radi­a­tion expo­sure. Mary Doherty, pub­lic health advi­sor with Physicians for Social Responsibility and with expe­ri­ence on the ground at Chernobyl and Fukushima would join us. The three of us would use Sachiko and her family’s sur­vivor expe­ri­ences as med­ical case stud­ies. This was a first for me. As a writer for chil­dren and young adults, I had not expect­ed doc­tors as my audience.

On the after­noon of August 9—the 72nd anniver­sary of the atom­ic bomb­ing of Nagasaki—Monica Volmann, Mary Doherty, and I stood in front of a class­room of med­ical doc­tors. In our hands was the New York Times, and on the front page was a pho­to of Donald Trump with his chal­lenge to North Korea: “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has nev­er seen.”

New York Times, front page, Aug. 9, 2017

The world has already seen “fire and fury.” Towards the end of World War II, on August 6 and 9, 1945, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki faced nuclear war. The Hiroshima atom­ic bomb, “Little Boy,” killed approx­i­mate­ly 140,000 peo­ple; Nagasaki’s “Fat Man” killed 74,000—two cities destroyed by two bombs. Thousands faced imme­di­ate death, thou­sands more suf­fered life-long effects from burns, radi­a­tion expo­sure, and can­cers. The nuclear weapons we have today are far more destruc­tive than the first atom­ic bombs det­o­nat­ed in 1945. We asked the class­room of doc­tors to imag­ine fac­ing a nuclear acci­dent, or worse, nuclear war. What would they do as med­ical first responders?

I began by read­ing parts of Sachiko. Dr. Vohmann dis­played her med­ical PowerPoint slides. It looked and sound­ed some­thing like this.

“Sachiko lay in bed, hov­er­ing between life and death. She was too ill to eat, too tired to con­cen­trate. She spiked a high fever. Her hair fell out. Her gums bled. Tiny pur­ple spots appeared on her body, spread, and with­in a few days grew into dots the size of peas. Lesions opened in her skin. Flies laid eggs in them. The mag­gots caused itch­ing and excru­ci­at­ing pain. Sachiko’s dead broth­ers called to her again, ‘Come with us.’”

On the left, Sachiko at 9 years, old, 3 years after the atom­ic bomb­ing. At right, an ear­ly pho­to of broth­ers Ichiro and Aki. Two weeks after the atom­ic bomb­ing, of Nagasaki, Ichiro (left) died of acute radi­a­tion ill­ness. Aki (right) died of flash burns.

ph_cs_ionizing_radiation_600px-8390860Acute Radiation Illness

Signs and Symptoms:

  • • Nausea and vom­it­ing, diar­rhea, loss of appetite
  • • Skin burns, petechiae
  • • Weakness/Fatigue
  • • Fainting
  • • Inflammation of tissues
  • • Mucosal bleeding
  • • Anemia, longer term decrease in WBC
  • • Hair loss

gr_cs_hersey-1388395The lec­ture was chill­ing. What was more chill­ing for me than our lec­ture was my research read­ing hun­dreds of nar­ra­tive accounts of peo­ple who sur­vived Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My eyes have been opened. I could not walk away from writ­ing Sachiko’s sto­ry with­out con­clud­ing nuclear weapons are a mil­i­tary absur­di­ty of exis­ten­tial pro­por­tions. Author John Hersey sums up the impor­tance of the atom­ic bomb sur­vivors’ stories.

“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deter­rence in the sense of fear of spe­cif­ic weapons, so much as it’s been mem­o­ry, the mem­o­ry of what hap­pened at Hiroshima.“

Today the world has about 15,000 nuclear weapons, 90% owned by the United States and Russia. In January 2017, with con­cerns for nuclear war­fare, cli­mate change, and the elec­tion of Donald Trump, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands on the Doomsday Clock from 3 min­utes to mid­night to 2 ½ min­utes. None of us can be complacent.

What can we do? We can find the time and courage to work for peace no mat­ter how we define our paths. No one can know the rip­ple effects of our small­est steps. If any­one had asked me five years ago if I would be speak­ing to a room full of doc­tors about radi­a­tion expo­sure, nuclear war, and the crit­i­cal impor­tance of world peace, I would have shak­en my head no, “Not me.”

Five years ago, I may not have under­stood this either: We have no idea how pow­er­ful our books for chil­dren and young adults can be, what audi­ences they may inspire, and how much good our sto­ries can do out in the world. Books for chil­dren and young adults are books for us all.



Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Physicians for Social Responsibility, Wisconsin:

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

World Citizen

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