Chihiro Nakazawa, right, observes medical staffers at the Misawa Air Base, Japan, hospital as they get a patient ready for surgery.

Chihiro Nakazawa, right, observes medical staffers at the Misawa Air Base, Japan, hospital as they get a patient ready for surgery. (U.S. Air Force)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — In just less than two weeks, fifth-year medical student Chihiro Nakazawa has shadowed specialists in orthopedics, general surgery and anesthesia, and she’s even observed her first baby delivery during a summer internship at the Misawa base hospital.

It was a thrill to see the “very cute little boy” pop out, Nakazawa said, but she also was impressed that “daddies are there for delivery,” something that’s becoming a bit more common in Japan, where the father-to-be typically waits outside or has “to go to work.” Only about 0.5 percent of employed fathers get paternal leave in Japan, she said, but “here, the new dad told me he takes three weeks off.”

Something else Nakazawa saw in the delivery room that she likely wouldn’t in a Japanese obstetrics ward: Pain medication. Most births in Japan involve natural labor, she said, because the country has too few anesthesiologists.

From fathers and epidurals in delivery rooms to doctors’ very attentive “bedside manner,” Nakazawa said she’s learned much about American medicine. Medical terms are similar, and so is the equipment, but Nakazawa said she also observed many differences between U.S. and Japanese medicine.

“So far, it’s really wonderful,” she said of the experience.

The annual program at Misawa, now in its fifth year, is a rare opportunity for some of the top medical students at Hirosaki University in Aomori prefecture to see “the American-practice style and basic care techniques,” said pediatrician Capt. Shayne Stokes, who is overseeing the four internships at the hospital this summer. Each rotation lasts from 10 days to two weeks and coincides with students’ summer break. The interns also get to experience American culture during their stay with a host family on base.

Accommodating the future Japanese doctors, in turn, promotes host-nation relations and improves access to medical care for Americans in northern Japan, Stokes said.

“We rely heavily on local resources for ICU care or emergency support when we’re unable to provide the care here,” he said. “Developing physician-to-physician relationships has been a huge benefit in helping us get those patients better because we (have) access to hospitals and ICUs in Aomori, Hachinohe and a relationship with Hirosaki University now.

“That opens up a lot of possibilities when we can’t med-evac a person quick enough,” he said.

Nakazawa applied for the program on advice from a fellow student who was an intern last year.

“Hirosaki University sends the best of the best,” said Paul Sayles, a patient safety analyst at the base hospital. A working knowledge of English is a must.

Nakazawa speaks nearly flawless English, having been schooled briefly in Toronto, Canada, as a child and having taken private English lessons every Saturday at her parents’ insistence.

She’s considering working outside of Japan, possibly for the United Nations, after graduating from medical school, an interest in part sparked by her experience at Misawa, she said.

“Here every doctor seems very happy,” she said, “and every nurse seems very happy. In Japan, the doctors seem very well but they seem so exhausted.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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