You Home Clinic president Shinsuke Muto (L) and Secours Populaire Francais president Julien Laupretre (R)(Photo by Patrice Novotny / AFP)
ISHINOMAKI, October 7, 2011 (AFP) - Doctor Shinsuke Muto runs an unusual health service in the tsunami-battered Japanese city of Ishinomaki.
Patients come to his clinic to be treated for physical pain or therapy to help their bodies recover from the injuries they received when a 15-metre (45-foot) wave swept through their homes on March 11.
But many also come to the health centre he established nearby to have their emotions healed, to have the mental wounds patched up and the loneliness and isolation soothed.
Elderly people who lived their whole lives in Ishinomaki saw their homes, their families and their friends and neighbours washed away, says Muto.
"I found that the treatment of the elderly lacked warmth. They of course need treatment, but they also needed a place to meet," he told AFP.
His health centre aims to provide just that.
Of the 20,000 people killed nationwide in the massive waves generated by the magnitude 9.0 offshore earthquake, a fifth were from Ishinomaki.
The once-thriving fishing port sits around 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the Fukushima nuclear power plant where workers are still trying to tame the world's worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl.
Piles of rubble still scar the city where many of the 165,000 inhabitants were made homeless by the devastating waves.
Muto arrived in the city two months after the disaster, when the need for acute medical care had subsided a little.
He founded the You Home clinic, offering the normal array of medical services.
Then, with a grant from French charity Secours Populaire Francais and the Nippon Foundation, he founded a health centre nearby to offer all-round care to his patients.
It offers free consultations, including with specialists in Tokyo, using equipment that allows them to examine patients remotely.
The centre, which opened its doors in September, provides pastoral care for its clients and much needed employment in a region whose economy took a battering in the disaster. Of its 10 employees, seven are local.
But one of Muto's main aims is to give patients the chance to meet with other people.
Many of those he sees are living in the temporary accommodation thrown up in the months after the tsunami, often cut off from the people they know.
"At the health centre, young people can organise a film screening, older people have a coffee or dinner with friends," said the doctor.
This chance for human interaction is vital if Ishinomaki is to get back on its feet, says Julian Laupretre, president of Secours Populaire, who came to inaugurate the centre.
"Friendship does not solve everything, but it is irreplaceable," he said.
For him, the centre is a place where patients can feel that they are not alone and have not been abandoned to their fate.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, donations and offers of help flooded in from all around the world, but it is long-term care that is needed now, says doctor Ismail Hassouneh of Secours Populaire, who worked in Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
"It is important that we keep a close eye on what happens to those caught up in the disaster," he said.
"An event of this magnitude brings with it long-term psychological issues that must be addressed."