From Horror to Hope
Today, at 61, Komaki has found another way to heal the wounds of the past. A radiation oncologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Komaki helped plan the hospital's $125 million Proton Therapy Center, which will open next year and house a revolutionary, 320-ton proton-accelerating system. Only the fourth of its kind in the U.S., the unit can pinpoint cancerous cells more accurately than X-ray radiation therapy, leaving healthy tissue and organs alone.
Komaki is intimately familiar with the tremendous potential, as well as the devastating consequences, of radiation. Six relatives were killed by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. Undeterred by the danger, Komaki's father, Isao Ueda, a banker, wanted to help rebuild his ravaged birthplace and moved his family there from Amagasaki in 1947. One of Komaki's new schoolmates was Sadako Sasaki, a local girl who became one of her closest friends and seemed unscathed by the attack. But a few years later, Sadako was diagnosed with leukemia. In the hospital she began making origami birds with one hope in mind. "She wanted to get better," Komaki says sadly.
Komaki and other friends pitched in to help Sadako reach the fabled 1,000 cranes, but her friend, only 11, died in 1955. Shortly after, at just 12, Komaki spearheaded a two-year fund-raising drive that raised $100,000 to build a statue of Sadako. The popular attraction in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park depicts the girl standing atop an atomic bomb holding an origami crane. Sadako's death forged a clear path for Komaki. "I got into my career because of Sadako," she says.
Komaki attended medical school at Hiroshima University, then interned at the Medical College of Wisconsin. There her high spirits enthralled James Cox, the department chairman. "She's got a great warmth, and it's one of the reasons patients adore her," says Cox, 67. Over her father's objections—he didn't want her to be with an American—Komaki married Cox in 1979.
After first settling in New York, the two were hired in 1988 to work in the M.D. Anderson radiation-oncology department, which Cox now heads. Their dedication is evident in the long hours they work, and they often have to remind each other to eat or get enough sleep. "She's somewhere between persistent and committed—what she calls 'very sticky,'" says Cox. "She doesn't give up."
Her tenacity has become well known. In 1998 Elaine Dalcher, 52, an artist from Grand Rapids, Mich., was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live. When she was referred by a friend to Komaki, Dalcher moved to Houston for nine months of chemotherapy and conventional radiation. Recalls Dalcher: "She took a look at my situation, which wasn't very hopeful. But she saw my cancer as something she was going to conquer." The treatment worked, and Dalcher has remained cancer free ever since.
Komaki pushed hard for the Proton Therapy Center in part because patients won't suffer so severely from some of the debilitating side effects like nausea and heart inflammation that they experience with X-ray treatments. It's a lesson she learned from the atomic bomb. "If you use too much radiation, you kill people," she says. "But if we use the radiation in the right direction to target an area, we can cure cancer."
To raise patients' spirits, Komaki urged that the Proton Therapy Center include an origami bird sculpture in its design. The 8-ft.-tall steel structure rests high above the entrance. Komaki will see it every day, as will patients who, Komaki believes, will draw strength from the bird—just as her long-ago friend did from tiny paper versions. Komaki thinks of this and smiles. "Life," she says, "is balanced."
Bob Meadows. Darla Atlas in Houston