HIRONO, Fukushima Prefecture--The tragic death in a fire of its only full-time doctor at a hospital here has dealt another crisis to this tiny community, which is still struggling to rebuild from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Hideo Takano, 81, director of Takano Hospital, died on Dec. 30, threatening the future of the hospital and possibly the community of 2,800 residents.

Hirono Mayor Satoshi Endo on Jan. 3 stepped up his pleas for assistance from the central and prefectural governments.

“We would like to prevent the collapse of local medical services,” Endo said at a news conference. “We, as a local government, need to respond to the dedication of Takano.”

Under the law, a private medical facility must have at least one full-time doctor on staff.

Takano’s one-story wooden house, on the same site as the hospital, caught fire on the night of Dec. 30. Police found his body inside the home.

Takano and another doctor at the hospital had treated inpatients as full-time physicians before the triple meltdown in March 2011, which was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11 the same year.

The hospital is situated around 20 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. It offers the only medical inpatient facility in Futaba county, which, alongside Hirono, includes towns co-hosting the Fukushima No. 1 plant and damaged Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant.

When the town government ordered all its residents to evacuate on March 13, 2011, Takano and many of his staff chose to remain to treat inpatients at the hospital. They deemed it too risky to transport aged and frail patients elsewhere when the entire prefecture was in disarray.

Most of the inpatients at the hospital are senior citizens from Hirono, and many of them were bed-ridden.

Hirono had a population of slightly more than 5,000 before the nuclear disaster. But only a little more than half of the residents have returned to live in the town after the evacuation order was lifted a year later.

As of the end of last December, there were 102 inpatients at Takano Hospital, although the size of the staff shrank to about one-third of the pre-disaster level. Part-time doctors have joined Takano in treating patients after the disaster, but he was the only full-time physician on staff there.

“Takano used to say nothing makes him happier than treating patients,” said one of the hospital staff, describing his commitment.

According to the Hirono officials, part-time doctors continued seeing patients at the hospital until Jan. 3 after Takano's death.

The town managed to secure temporary doctors for the hospital after that date through cooperation from Minami-Soma, a city about 60 km to the north.

Physicians from the municipal Minami-Soma General Hospital also have pitched in and formed a group to assist Takano Hospital. More than 20 doctors have signed up to provide volunteer services, including those from Chiba, Shizuoka and Nagano prefectures.

Although there is a medical clinic in Hirono, some residents say it is not sufficient to meet the health-care needs of residents in the town on its own.

(This article was written by Yuki Chai and Mana Nagano.)