March 16, 2011 -- Twenty minutes before Dr. Ritsuko Komaki's flight was scheduled to arrive at Tokyo's Narita airport Friday, the pilot said an earthquake had ravaged the northeast region of her homeland.
Komaki, a radiation oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, went to Japan to give a lecture on radiation cancer therapy in Tokyo. Instead, she took a taxi to her older sister's house near Nagoya, where the two Hiroshima natives watched Japan's worst catastrophe since the atomic bomb worsen through the night.
"I've never seen such a disaster in my life," said Komaki, who was 2 years old when the atomic bomb hit her home town, ultimately killing a dozen of her relatives.
"While I was watching TV, I saw that [a building] at the Fukushima nuclear plant exploded. I thought, 'Oh my goodness. If that explodes, this is like the atomic bomb explosion, and how many people will be exposed?'"
When the atomic bomb dropped, Komaki and her immediately family were in Osaka -- roughly 200 miles from Hiroshima. But her father rushed home, braving the "black rain," to fetch Komaki's 45-year-old grandmother.
"She had very high dose of radiation, but was lucky because she was inside her house, she was protected," Komaki said, describing the horror of her grandmother's hair loss and nose bleeds.
Despite anemia, osteoporosis, thyroid dysfunction and heart disease, Komaki's grandmother lived to be 72 without signs of cancer.
Many of Komaki's childhood friends weren't so lucky. Classmates' burns were a constant reminder of the bomb. But the damage below their skin would prove to be the disaster's more haunting scar.
The Horror of Hiroshima
One friend, Sadako Sasaki, was a baby at home in a suburb of Hiroshima when the bomb hit, and the radiation triggered mutations in the white blood cells produced deep within her bones.
"For children that's very dangerous. Those cells are proliferating, recycling much faster. And when you get a low dose of radiation to those developing cells, you can develop cancer," Komaki said.
Komaki remembers racing against Sasaki in elementary school.
"She was a very fast runner and I had tough time catching her, but she became short of breath," she said.
Soon after, Sasaki was diagnosed with leukemia. While she was in the hospital, she folded pieces of wax paper that held her medication into paper cranes, hoping to make 1,000. She died at age 12 after making 644.
"When Sadako died, I was so sad. I really wanted to do something for her memory so that no one would forget," Komaki said.
Komaki and her classmates folded the rest of the rest of the cranes and raised money to erect a statue of Sasaki that still stands in Hiroshima's Peace Park. But she wanted to do even more, so she went to medical school.
After graduating, she worked at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation for a year before moving to the United States 40 years ago for special training in blood diseases, like leukemia. Later, she became more interested in using radiation to heal.
"At a high dose, we can use radiation to kill cancer cells," Komaki said.
At MD Anderson's Proton Therapy Center, Komaki uses high-energy beams of protons to target radiation to cancer cells, avoiding damage to healthy normal cells.
"This proton center is my dream come true," Komaki said. "The spirit of Sadako is still alive in my mind. I never forget the experience from where I came from, but I would like to make all negatives positive."
Hopes for Japan's Recovery
Komaki said Hiroshima today is nothing like the ghost land she grew up in.
"Now it's totally different place -- a very built-up, peaceful, beautiful place," she said.
Only one building from before the bombing still stands today, she said -- a trade center made of steel and concrete.
Komaki said her heart aches again for the people of Japan, many of whom have lost loved ones and their homes.
"This is such a tragedy. I just feel so bad for all the people that are living there -- especially kids who are afraid," Komaki said. "I hope they can detect radiation where they live and that there will be a safe place for them to go."