Jay Copp 2015-07-16 18:37:05
Dr. Jitsuhiro Yamada of Japan, our 99th international president, promises to advance the health of the association. For 45 years Dr. Jitsuhiro Yamada has donned surgical scrubs and, as families anxiously paced in the waiting room, operated on the brain, neck or back. Neurosurgery has not been his only occupation. Yamada also served as a hospital director, a job with a huge impact, not only on individual families, but on an entire community. Now Yamada serves all Lions, taking the oath as the 99th international president of Lions Clubs International on June 30 in Honolulu. His work in medicine requires a steady hand, a keen eye for detail and the ability to make tough decisions by quickly synthesizing reams of information. Granted, the presidency is not brain surgery. But he needs to keep rallying Lions around the measles program, our sight efforts and other life-saving or life-changing major initiatives, strengthen membership and retention, and keep the centennial celebration on course. So how will he lead our association of 1.4 million Lions? Yamada can draw on lessons learned from a frightening cancer diagnosis and shoddy care from a physician. He can muster the gumption and ingenuity that led him, as a hospital director, to pioneer new forms of care. Or, a leadership based on personal experience, he can recall what it is like to be a regular Lion or even the disaffected Lion as he once was, so lacking in enthusiasm he nearly quit his club. Maybe he’ll even invoke a story about a possible Martian invasion. He did just that in marshalling support among Lions for a bold plan to save the Great Wall of China. Ultra-focused in the operating room and duly serious in hospital staff meetings, Yamada, 71, often surprises acquaintances with his geniality and humor in more relaxed situations. He may surprise Lions, too with his approach. He promises not a major operation, not an overhaul—nor, on the other hand, a cursory checkup but instead a thorough, decisive and empathetic bedside manner as top Lion. “My philosophy with medicine and Lions is to leave things in a better state than how I found them,” he says with conviction. “That’s why we ‘treat’ and that’s why ‘we serve.’” Yamada has a doctor-like presence. “Dr. Yamada is the quintessential brain surgeon,” says Masako Kawai, who met him 20 years ago when they volunteered together to promote tourism and commerce in Gifu Prefecture, where Yamada lives. “He’s always calm, warm-hearted, focused and ready to make a good decision that has a big impact in a split second. He always has a keen eye for details and always keeps the big picture in mind.” (Some of the quotes in this story were translated from Japanese.) Medicine has enveloped Yamada’s life. His father was a doctor. As a boy, Yamada was entranced by the TV show “Ben Casey.” Here was man who did what his father did and wore a shining white coat to boot. Certain of his calling at an early age, he earned his medical degree from Nihon University in 1968. Not surprisingly, medicine even was the context of his courtship, marriage and now, for decades, his smooth, loving partnership with his spouse. He met Toshiko in medical school. They traded lunches, shared lecture notes and in time shared a life. Yamada fondly—and modestly—recalls their days together as medical students. “She took good notes. I did not,” he says, unconvincingly. “I knew from the beginning he was a gentle and honest man,” says Dr. Toshiko Yamada. “He’s truly a big thinker. He thinks about things many years into the future.” Yamada had what it took to prosper as a neurosurgeon. His healthcare colleagues attest to his coolness under pressure in the operating room. Those qualities are a prerequisite for a neurosurgeon. But his innovative track record as a hospital administrator sets him apart. Yamada added a rehabilitation center to Kizawa Memorial Hospital. Many patients came out of surgery with disabilities or other medical challenges. “I built the center because I knew the importance of good post-op rehabilitation. It’s the difference between going home in a wheelchair or on your own two feet in many cases,” says Yamada, who still serves as CEO of a medical/social service group and still directs the Japanese Hospital Association. Yamada didn’t stop there. An encounter with a patient from years ago stayed with him. He told a post-op patient who was making good progress with her physical therapy, “Looks like you’re almost ready to go home.” She burst into tears. “Please don’t send me home,” she pleaded. Still partially paralyzed, she did not want to be a burden on her family. Japanese law then drew a strict line between medical institutions and elderly-care facilities. Yamada visited facilities in the United States and Australia to learn about integrated care for the elderly. In 1988, a pioneer in Japan, he helped establish the Sawayaka Nursing Villa, and the system of nursing and retirement homes now includes more than 30 facilities. Yamada’s daily experiences as a doctor swayed him to be bold and innovative as a healthcare leader. His sudden own terrifying illness as a patient transformed him as a doctor and jolted him into a heightened understanding of the preciousness of life and the obligation to give back. In the summer of 1983, at just 39 years old, he was shocked to learn he had liver cancer. He underwent an emergency operation. “I thought I would die. It’s an indescribable feeling,” he says. A year later, still fearful of dying, he saw his doctor again. “Why am I still alive?” he asked. The doctor matter-of-factly replied, “Your tumor was benign.” Yamada was incredulous. And furious. Post-op biopsies take a couple weeks or even days. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded. The doctor stood his ground, however shaky. “I was waiting for you to ask,” he curtly responded. Yamada resolved to henceforth provide the kind of care he expected for himself. Something else came alive inside him. No more would he take life for granted or take from life all the good it offered without trying to make life better for others. “I was so thankful. I felt there was a God. I wanted to serve. I wanted to give back,” he says. The next year Yamada became a Lion. The timing was perfect. His father, who had been a Lion, had just passed away. His uncle, a district governor, encouraged him to fill his father’s shoes and join. Of course, you can be a Lion without serving others. You can be there for the social hour, the conviviality and the hollow satisfaction that comes from membership alone. A three-month rookie, Yamada hurried to a meeting in his scrubs after a hectic day of surgery at the hospital. An older Lion took offense at his appearance. “Change into a proper suit and don’t forget to wear your badge, too,” he scolded him. Yamada was enraged. He even typed a resignation letter for his uncle, the district governor. Yamada cooled off, and his passion for service heated up. The lever for change was his acceptance of a leadership role in the club for a cause near and dear to him. The club promoted organ donation, and Yamada took on the role of donor-patient coordinator. As a neurosurgeon, he saw how organ donations saved lives. “I often deal with brain-dead patients. When I talk to parents and families I tell them their loved ones can live on through an organ donation,” he says. “One patient gave kidneys to two people. The families who received the donations came back to the hospital with flowers for the family [of the deceased] to thank them for saving the life of their loved one. It was very touching.” Yamada flourished as a Lion after he became the organ donation coordinator. “That was a turning point for me as a Lion,” he says. As a club president, district governor and international director, Yamada championed a multitude of successful projects. Integral to his leadership has been a willingness to take chances, to stir the pot, to step outside the box, doing so in fanciful way if that’s what it took to quell doubt and rouse support. His district governor sought to do a large-scale service project when he was serving as zone chairperson. He had an idea. Why not protect the Great Wall of China? Erosion was wearing it away, and a forest of trees would provide a protective shield. His proposal landed with a thud. How could Lions of Japan overcome tensions between the two nations and summon the technical expertise and manpower for the project to succeed? That’s when Yamada, out of the blue, concocted a tale of an earth at risk of Martian invasion. “What if space aliens were looking down at the Earth for sign of an advanced society? The Great Wall is supposedly visible from space,” Yamada told the Lions leaders. “If Martians saw the wall was crumbling they’d think humanity was in decline—ready to be conquered. We need to protect the Wall.” It was poppycock, a silly story. Yamada knew it. The Lions knew it. (His wife knew it, too. “Maybe you are one of the aliens,” she dismissively told him when he recounted the story to her.) But the tale shook Lions from their dead seriousness, their doldrums and their inability to see beyond the obvious and the easy. They agreed to take on the landmark tree-planting project. Many hurdles remained. Chief among them was the problem of “iron trees.” The Lions soon realized that any trees planted soon would be chopped down by villagers desperately reliant on firewood to cook their meals. A Lion remarked that the only tree left standing would be an iron one. The solution was a tree more valuable standing than one cut down. Lions would plant chestnut trees, highly valued as a source of nutrition. Another daunting obstacle was finding a respected, resourceful partner in China to help circumvent a host of political and practical barriers. This is where luck—the residue of design—came in. Yamada happened to read a newspaper story about a Chinese professor leading tree planting in Inner Mongolia to combat desertification. Yamada called him on the phone, and the professor told him that “the perfect person to help you just happens to be in Japan now.” Adds Yamada, “The pieces just fell into place.” In three years, with the help of local Chinese volunteers, Lions planted 68,000 trees. The Martians stayed put. Yamada leans back in his chair in his office at international headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, and ponders the question whether as Lions’ president he will favor innovation and risk as he did as a healthcare leader. As president, he won’t be in Oak Brook often and won’t have the luxury of time. This year he’ll travel all over the world, meeting Lions at clubs, conventions and forums to inspire them, learn from them and collect information from the boots on the ground that are essential to making decisions and shaping policy. “Expect the same thing,” he says. “There will be some changes. … My expectations are always high. I’m idealistic. I set high goals.” It promises to be an eventful year, a fun year, a year of turning corners with one foot in yesterday and one in tomorrow. “We’re about to turn 100 years old. I think we’ve reached a turning point. We want LCI to last another 100 years. “We need to look back at what we’ve accomplished and look ahead to what we can do. Some things that are no longer relevant we want to leave behind. It’s like the Lions logo that looks two ways: forward and backward. That’s how we will move ahead.” Digital LION Our early presidents set the bar high for Lions. • As Lions Clubs reach its 10th anniversary, President William Westfall calls on members to “reconsecrate ourselves to those two great major activities: the handicapped child and the blind” (September 1926 LION). • President Roderick Beddow is “heartily in favor of expansion in Canada and Mexico” (August 1933 LION). • President Frank Birch predicts new streamline trains, electricity for farms and the popularity of television while asserting that “the prosperity of Lions will come from improving our 3,000 clubs” (June 1938 LION).
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