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YOMITAN, Okinawa — “They saved my life.”

That’s Don Hobbs’ take on the care he received at Chubu Hospital in Uruma after his heart attack nearly 10 years ago. And to this day, he continues to visit the Okinawa prefectural hospital for treatment.

Hobbs, 58, coordinator for student activities for DODDS-Pacific and DODEA-Guam, was coaching a basketball game at Kubasaki High School when he was rushed to the U.S. Naval Hospital on Camp Lester. Two weeks later he woke up in the intensive care ward of Chubu Hospital.

“I don’t recall anything of what happened during that time,” Hobbs said. “I was told my heart had stopped beating at Lester, and they revived me and rushed me to Chubu.”

Doctors there repaired the tear near his heart’s aortic valve, and he later went to the States for a pacemaker.

Hobbs said his cardiologist spoke excellent English, and the nursing staff was more attentive than the staff at the Portland, Ore., hospital where he received his pacemaker.

“I had no choice concerning my first visit to Chubu, but I have no problem in recommending hospitals here on Okinawa to anyone needing care,” Hobbs said.

Many hospitals on Okinawa have English-speaking staffers to assist foreigners.

They’re available during normal daytime hours at Heart Life Hospital in Nishihara, said spokesman Masaharu Chinen. “During night hours, however, the staff is limited, and English-speaking service may not be available.”

That kind of service quells any doubt Petty Officer 1st Class Eddie Mangum would have about local hospitals.

“I would go to one off base, because I’m sure someone would have the ability to translate, and I would feel comfortable with the professional staff,” the Yokosuka-based USS Kitty Hawk sailor said.

But not all Americans are convinced.

“It is nerve-racking, and it is scary, especially when you have to go in for major surgery,” said Jamie Yenco, a dependent at Sasebo Naval Base who’s been treated off base. “You don’t know what to expect with the language barrier. Although we have interpreters, you don’t always get the full story.”

The language barrier also concerns Cristina Neumann, a civilian liberty program manager at Sasebo.

“For me, it would just be a very uncomfortable situation, because you can’t communicate directly with your physicians, and with the language barrier, you never really know if it’s translated properly,” she said.

At Yokosuka Naval Base, Petty Officer 2nd Class Talia Woods, of the base security force, had nothing but praise for local hospitals.

“I think off-base hospitals are awesome,” she said. “My husband had a minor heart attack, and we had to use one, and the doctors were excellent.”

Tech. Sgt. Keisha Ortiz, 35, an assistant dining facility manager at Misawa Air Base, said she was apprehensive when she had to go to the off-base Hachinohe Heart Center clinic to get an echocardiogram.

She was concerned about whether health-care standards would be like those at U.S. military or stateside civilian hospitals, she said.

The experience calmed her.

“It was very clean, everyone was very polite,” she said. Her insurer, Tricare, provided an escort who translated for her, and a bus shuttled her and other patients between the base and clinic.

The only drawback was the limited interaction with the technician, Ortiz said.

“There was no play-by-play [such as], “‘This is what I see, this is what I’m doing,’” she said. “There was no conversation” beyond the initial greeting.

“If people were made more aware of how the health-care system works in an overseas location, I think they would feel more at ease,” Ortiz added.

Staff Sgt. James Cooper of the 296th Army Band at Camp Zama, Japan, and his wife, Patricia, were referred off post for the birth of their twin boys on New Year’s Day.

The experience was a “little scary” at first, Patricia said. But now she wouldn’t hesitate to get off-base treatment if she needed it.

She initially was seeing an obstetrician at Yokosuka Naval Base. But because of her high-risk pregnancy and chances for early delivery, she was placed under a Japanese doctor’s care at Aiiku Hospital in nearby Yamato.

However, the night before the twins were born, she was taken by Japanese ambulance to Numazu City Hospital in Shizuoka prefecture, a larger, better-equipped facility about two hours away. The boys arrived eight weeks early via Caesarean section.

The Zama clinic sent a translator along.

“She stayed with me until the day after delivery,” Patricia said. “She translated all the surgery procedures.”

She spent 10 days in the hospital, and her boys stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for nine weeks. When the Coopers made trips to see them, they were occasionally accompanied by doctors and a translator from Zama.

“The nurse staff and doctors in there were wonderful,” she said. “Overall, the care was excellent … and we never found the language barrier to be a problem.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Vince Little, Chiyomi Sumida, Jennifer Svan and Travis Tritten contributed to this report.

If you need help

Here are a few suggestions from medical commands and former patients for Americans who find themselves seeking care in Japanese or Korean hospitals and clinics:


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