Turning Disaster Into Opportunity

“I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity.” – John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)

As scenes of devastation from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan on March 11 continue to play on the world’s media outlets, the precarious reality of man’s existence on this planet, in the face of natural forces, is all too obvious. Added to the physical damage caused by the natural disaster is the insidious threat of radiation poisoning from the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As one of the most-developed and technologically-advanced cultures in the world, the frailty of Japan’s modern infrastructure should serve has a wake-up call throughout the developed nations that natural disaster is an unavoidable fact of the human condition.

Since the disaster, the courage and resilience of the Japanese people have been encouraging and inspiring to watch. There have been no reports of looting after the disaster. Despite the overwhelming loss of life and property, the situation and hardships of daily life have been calmly accepted with only rare complaints. The Japanese people are the true heroes in this disaster. I suspect the death toll from this disaster would have been considerably higher, if not for the exemplary reaction of this society to catastrophe.

Prepare Now for Future Calamities

As federal medicine providers, I feel it is vital for our community to pay close attention to these disasters, man-made and natural, to prepare ourselves for the time when the calamity occurs within our own borders. I do not believe this statement is alarmist, considering recent world events and our own, rather disturbing, response to hurricane Katrina in 2005. There is an 
expectation, and rightly so, that our military and federal health providers are always trained, equipped and ready to respond to the nations’ disasters, 
regardless of the nature of the threat.

It is our business to have a working medical knowledge of nuclear, biological and chemical threats and to be able to respond and function effectively in these environments. While hospital disaster drills and alert roster participation can seem an unreasonable burden to a busy clinician, these activities are part-and-parcel of being a federal medicine practitioner. When opportunities present to participate on a community or state disaster-planning cell, federal medicine providers should step forward. We are the medical experts in this area of disaster planning, after all.

I have used this forum before to expound on the benefits of training and teaching missions to medically underserved areas of the world (Training for Disaster – US Medicine, March 2010). I can think of no better preparation for a federal provider in disaster medicine than extricating oneself from the technology cocoon that we rely on in the United States and learning to provide quality care in technically- and physically-austere environments. Personally, the most important training I have ever received in preparation for working in Iraq or Afghanistan came from missions to medically-underserved regions of the planet. Many of my past residents and fellows have echoed this sentiment. I would encourage all federal medicine providers to seek opportunities to participate in these missions.

Learn from Events to Improve Response

Sadly, the only thing I know for sure about the disaster in Japan is that something of this magnitude and impact is going to happen again, somewhere else, and likely soon. Irrespective of our technological prowess, we are still a part of the natural world and, thus, still subject to its spasms and upheavals. We are unique as a species on this planet in that we can inflict our own man-made disasters upon ourselves. Presently, avoidance, at least of the natural disasters, is beyond our power. The best we can do is to learn from these events, internalize the lessons and develop systems from this knowledge to improve our responses in the future.

As federal medicine providers, we really should turn these disasters into opportunities to explore within ourselves how we would respond to a similar situation at home. I would hope that, in the end, this call to action will be an unnecessary effort. Odds are, though, that this preparation will make all the difference personally, professionally and for the country.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of U.S. Medicine, Marathon Medical Communications, Inc. or the United States government and its agencies.

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