By Laura Beil
Healing From Hiroshima’s Ashes
A child of the atomic bomb turns to radiation to help cancer patients
By Laura Beil
Photographs by Lekha Singh
On Aug. 6, 1945, when Ritsuko Ueda Komaki was a toddler, the world changed. The United States dropped civilization’s first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, which would soon mark the end of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age.
The Ueda family was 200 miles away, near Osaka, yet her grandmother and legions of relatives remained trapped in the blackened city. The day after the bomb, her father walked into Hiroshima, through the radioactive rain of soot and dust, searching for his mother-in-law and other family members. He found his mother-in-law alive, but showing all the symptoms of full-body radiation exposure: Her hair fell out in handfuls, her nose bled, and she suffered from severe diarrhea. Yet remarkably, she recovered, and lived to age 72.
Komaki and her family—her parents, a brother and a sister—moved to Hiroshima two years later to help care for relatives. Many of the city’s children were orphans, and food was often scarce. Here, growing up in the shadow of nuclear holocaust, Komaki developed a lifelong fixation on the power of radiation. She studied everything she could find about photons and subatomic particles. She read and reread biographies of Marie Curie, a pioneer in the science of radiation, who became her lifelong hero.
In middle school, she met classmate Sadako Sasaki. Her friend was an athlete, a champion runner. Yet the next year, when both girls were 10, Sadako seemed continually out of breath. She was diagnosed with radiation-induced leukemia and died months later.
Sadako’s death became the defining event in Komaki’s life. She had always been one to feel loss to her core; once, as a schoolgirl, after finding a mortally wounded bird, she dug the animal a small grave and held her own private ceremony. Though Komaki had witnessed sickness all around her, Sadako’s death made little sense. Her grandmother had survived the radiation unscathed; yet her friend, who was seemingly more full of life than any of her classmates, did not. She vowed then to become a doctor, to understand the frightening randomness of disease, and cure leukemia.
Komaki could not have known that decades later she would be a cancer specialist in the United States, using radiation—which had devastated so many around her—to heal. Now 65, she heads the section of thoracic radiation oncology at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She is a slight, gentle-spoken woman, barely over 5 feet tall, who nonetheless fills a room with the intensity of someone much larger.