Blackouts A Hazard For Japanese Hospitals

Rolling blackouts have become everyday events throughout much of Japan in the weeks since a record earthquake and tsunami damaged a nuclear reactor complex in Fukushima Prefecture. The problem has been particularly acute for hospitals, though, as NPR's Jim Zarroli found after he visited a small hospital in the industrial city of Kawasaki, near Tokyo.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Now, we turn to Japan. Parts of that country continue to face power outages - a result of the March 11th earthquake, which damaged a major nuclear power complex. The blackouts have been especially tough on some of Japan's hospitals.

NPR's Jim Zarroli visited a small hospital in Kawasaki, which has had to turn away patients during the outages.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

JIM ZARROLI: When ambulances drop off patients at Kawasaki Saiwai Hospital, this is where they normally pull up, to this pink emergency room door just off a narrow side street. These days, there's a square box the size of a minivan blocking the sidewalk.

Mr. YOSHIMI SAITO (Hospital Technician): (Japanese language spoken)

ZARROLI: Yoshimi Saito(ph), a hospital technician, says this is a new generator the hospital has leased to help it cope with rolling blackouts. It already has two other generators on the roof.

(Soundbite of conversations)

ZARROLI: The blackouts have forced Kawasaki Saiwai to perform a kind of ongoing juggling act, constantly trying to decide what kinds of services it can provide.

Hiroyuki Ueta, an analyst in the planning department, says the hospital has had to reduce its use of complicated diagnostic machines because they use a lot of power.

Mr. HIROYUKI UETA (Planning Analyst): (Through Translator) Just over here, we had a patient who came in with internal bleeding. We had to do a CT scan, but there was a blackout planned. We managed to finish just in time. But this is the kind of thing we worry about.

ZARROLI: When blackouts occur, Ueta says the hospital has to dim the corridor lights to conserve generator power. So they have to tell patients they can't have visitors. But the problems posed by the blackouts go much deeper - go to the very heart of the hospital's mission.

Dr. Eiki Ishii founded Kawasaki Saiwai in 1973, and still serves as chairman of the nonprofit foundation that owns it. He's also a patient. He suffered a stroke in January and was treated at the hospital. Thanks partly to the care he received, he tells me proudly, he has completely recovered.

Dr. EIKI ISHII (Founder, Kawasaki Saiwai Hospital): (Japanese language spoken)

ZARROLI: In a small conference room, over cups of green tea, Ishii pulls out a series of charts containing - among other things - the schedule for the blackouts.

Mr. ISHII: (Japanese language spoken)

ZARROLI: He tells me Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, announces power outages hours in advance, and it does so nearly every day. Often, the blackouts are canceled at the last minute, but the unpredictability makes it impossible to schedule the kinds of lengthy heart and brain operations the hospital performs.

Mr. ISHII: (Japanese language spoken)

ZARROLI: For instance, Ishii says, the hospital will sometimes stop a patient's heart to perform surgery, and put the patient on a machine temporarily. But it can't do that when it's using generators because their voltage is uneven. If power fluctuates too much, the patient could die. As a result, Kawasaki Saiwai has pretty much stopped performing complex operations altogether. When patients come in, doctors try to steer them to other hospitals, if possible. But that takes time, and the delay can lessen the odds a patient will survive.

This presents a huge dilemma for doctors like heart surgeon like Yoshiaki Tsukamoto.

Dr. YOSHIAKI TSUKAMOTO (Heart Surgeon): (Through Translator) Time is the most important thing in treating these patients. In the 21st century, we can treat these cases. But here at the hospital, we cannot. It's sad. We have to do something about it.

ZARROLI: What the hospital does is plead regularly with TEPCO for steady power. But Kawasaki Saiwai is a private facility, with fewer than 200 beds. It's also not in the earthquake disaster zone, so it doesn't get high priority from TEPCO.

All hospital officials can do is hope that full power is restored soon. But TEPCO says that probably won't happen.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, Tokyo.

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