From the eye of the tiger

Floating lanterns on the Motoyasu River during Peace Memorial Day. The river runs underneath the targeted "T-Bridge" by the Genbaku Dome (Atomic Bomb Dome) which is centrally located as the hypocenter of the Atomic Bomb. The Lantern Ceremony allows people to write prayers and memories on recycled paper peace cranes and insert them into the Motoyasu River.

Floating lanterns on the Motoyasu River during Peace Memorial Day. The river runs underneath the targeted “T-Bridge” by the Genbaku Dome (Atomic Bomb Dome) which is centrally located as the hypocenter of the atomic bomb.

A chance phone call, a competitive interview and a trip halfway around the world to participate in a global workshop. That’s what Heather Galang did last summer. On Monday we shared the perspective of two JMU nursing professors about their experience with the International Network of Universities program held last month at Hiroshima University. Today’s blog post is an entirely different perspective, a student’s perspective, written by JMU graduate nursing student Heather Lynne-Michelle Galang.

An American nurse in Japan

by Heather Lynne-Michelle Galang, MSN (c), RN-BC 

The Story

I was boarding a plane with my backpack, camera and water bottle, preparing for a Southeast Asian trip to the Myanmar Delta, an area devastated from Cyclone Nargis. The announcement came over the plane to turn off all electronics in preparation for departure to China in route to Myanmar. As I was working to turn off my phone, I felt it ‘ding’ one more time, notifying me of new mail. Of course I checked it. It was an email from the JMU nursing graduate program about the opportunity to attend a global nursing workshop in Japan. I immediately responded that I was interested, but would be away for several weeks with no access to email. I only hoped that opportunity would still be available upon my return. Fortunately, for me, it was.  After my return from Myanmar and a competitive interviewing process, I was chosen to represent JMU nursing at the International Network of Universities’ Inaugural Global Health Workshop on Disaster Nursing in Hiroshima, Japan, August 3-10, 2013.

The Overview

Workshop students at the hypocenter, alongside the Motoyasu River. Standing in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome (A-Dome) are students from Japan, Australia and South Korea. Heather is third from the right.

Workshop students at the hypocenter, alongside the Motoyasu River. Standing in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome (A-Dome) are students from Japan, Australia and South Korea. Heather is third from the right.

We gathered together in the intensely hot, humid August of Hiroshima, from Spain, Sweden, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and the United States to learn about a nurse’s role in a disaster. Each university represented presented a 15-minute presentation on disaster management in their represented country. Throughout the course, we attended lectures on the Kasumi Campus of Hiroshima University on the scope of disaster management and nursing. The students, residing on the campus of HU, were separated into three groups — terrorism, earthquake, or pandemic — to complete a mock-disaster surrounding or affecting Motomachi, a lower-income residential complex housing nearly 6,000 residents, many of whom are atomic bomb survivors. Each group assessed the site for its emergency preparedness, the individual apartments, the surrounding area and neighborhoods, the Community Care and Volunteer Center, the residents’ health needs, and the building’s structure. Upon our return to campus we were given a specific type of disaster with details related to our mock-disaster. The scenario for my group, the terrorism group, involved an explosion in the nearby public transportation system with release of diphosgene gas, a choking agent. Our mission was to complete an emergency plan that included action plans for immediately after the attack, 24 hours after the attack, and one year later, using our assessment and our perspective as nurses.

The Experience

Communication proved to be a challenge, as did our different approaches to disaster, which are perceived so differently across beliefs, countries and languages. In my group, two of us were practicing registered nurses. RNs, like me, deal daily with simple triage and small emergencies. For some in our group who were not yet RNs, the concept of triage was unfamiliar. Those with strong English skills often dominated conversation, while the others struggled to understand. What was really amazing, however, was that only a few days into the workshop you could see the extension of compassion and empathy between students trying to help other students understand an abstract idea in another language. The challenges did not prevent us from our mission to create a disaster plan. Rather, it provided opportunity to experience another perspective; another way of learning.

Atomic bomb survivor Ken Matsushima, with Andrea and Heather. He said he shares his story over and over because he is a "voice for the voiceless."

Atomic bomb survivor Ken Matsushima, with Andrea and Heather. He said he shares his story over and over because he is a “voice for the voiceless.”

As a part of a pursuit of peace that INU extends, we also joined with other workshops on peace, environmental justice, and global citizenship at Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. We participated in  the Peace Memorial Celebration, where the Prime Minister of Japan spoke, and the Lantern Ceremony later that evening. This experience allowed for reflection on the past, present, and future of nuclear warfare, war, peace, and the contributing role that our generation carries every day. Personally, I reflected on how disaster and conflict doesn’t just affect those immediately surrounding the event. I reflected on the ways disaster affects long-term illness and healthcare, which can lead to political and economical conflict, which can then lead to social conflict. It was very powerful to reflect on how one decision affects multiple facets of life and even across many decades of life.

One of many memorable moments came after our group photo with one speaker, Mr. Matsushima, a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing. He asked me, “Where are you from?” There was this awkward silence. I timidly said, “America, near Washington, D.C.” “Really?” he said. “I love it there!”  If there was anything that shocked me more than his response, it was this — the abundant respect for people. Not just people who make the right decisions or do only good but for people with painful pasts and histories of hurt. Being the change doesn’t just mean right now. It means incorporating the change into your being, into your life. How can our world find peace if we cannot set aside our differences, extend the hand of compassion to others regardless of what divides us? I found Hiroshima to be rebuilt on this resilient atmosphere of moving forward — together.

Students from the nursing workshop wearing Japanese nursing student's traditional Yukata. Heather is in the middle.

Students from the nursing workshop wearing Japanese nursing student’s traditional Yukata. Heather is in the middle.

Being the Change

So now what?  How did this once-in-a-life-time experience impact my life?  I’ll be honest. It  didn’t — it did far more. The experience in Hiroshima unexpectedly, yet profoundly, changed my life. The topics we discussed, the activities we experienced together, were difficult things to discuss. It wasn’t just an intellectual conversation. We discussed disaster. We discussed the events surrounding one of the deepest, darkest times a person can experience and how we — as nurses — can be the front line responders. What I realized is that we aren’t just nurses. We are healers. We are intelligent. We are educators. We sacrifice for those who hurt. We contribute to preparedness in disasters. We contribute to recovery and resilience in disasters. We are strong for those who are not.

One of my fellow students always called me ‘Tiger’, based on the Chinese Calendar. She said, “Tigers are strong, persistent. They overcome.” It takes all kinds to be a nurse, but perseverance is required. Nursing is not just something you do; it’s something you choose to be. I choose to be persistent through the challenging moments and the difficult hardships that come with life, like disasters, because I want the best for people.

I think the purpose of this workshop was to see that disasters will come, even when there is peace. Earthquakes and tsunamis, germs and bacteria will all exist. We need to be ready, and nurses can ensure that communities are ready. All of us at the workshop, regardless of our differences, were nurses with a common bond and understanding that is so difficult to explain to others who are not. And because we accept that challenge of nursing as a way of life, we have a responsibility to carry the change that found us in Japan back to our schools, hospitals and communities and to help continue to extend the arm of compassion. We have a responsibility to take the knowledge learned to others so that when a disaster strikes we can all be ready and we can all advocate for each other.

I learned to embrace nursing as a way of life and not just a profession. I learned to set aside my differences, alongside nurses from around the world, because of the common desire to simply make things better.

Heather Galang, RN-BC, is a master of science nursing student with a concentration in clinical nurse leadership and plans to graduate in 2014. Currently, she’s a cardiac board certified nurse at Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg. She also volunteers at the Harrisonburg Pregnancy Center as a registered nurse. After graduation Heather would like to explore public health or epidemiology opportunities with the possibility of continuing her education for a Master’s or Doctorate in public health at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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