Feeling the Affects of Chernobyl in Idaho

Watching HBO’s miniseries about the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, I thought of my grandmother Verna.  She died of uterine cancer in 1961 at the age of 52.  I remember overhearing my grandfather and uncles discussing the radioactivity involved in the cobalt therapy used to treat her cancer.  How could such a poisonous substance heal Grandma, I wondered?  In the end cobalt therapy didn’t help Grandma and may have hurt her.  Thus began my fear of radioactive poisoning.  Not that my imagination needed any help on that score.  I grew up in the Atomic Age.  Maybe every generation has a dystopian fear.  Today we worry about surviving climate change, but during the Cold War the possibility of nuclear holocaust seemed just as imminently threatening, if not more so.

Many times as a young girl I passed by the bank building in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana, and saw the distinctive black and yellow “fan” posted on the outside of the bank indicating a fallout shelter in the bank basement. I saw this same sign not too far from where I now live, in the Idaho desert north of Shoshone.  At one time Mammoth Cave, a large lava tube, served as a fallout shelter for Idahoans.  I eventually learned that though a shelter might help, radioactive fallout is a vaporous ghost that haunts long after the initial flash of a bomb.

Late in the 1970’s, the nation seemed gripped by different nuclear fears, this time having to do with faulty nuclear reactors.  In 1979 a movie called The China Syndrome was released and with it, a new term joined the vernacular.   It was said that a reactor core could overheat and melt down so far into the earth, it melted clear to China.  Eerily, not three weeks after the movie came out, life seemed to imitate art when one of three reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania went into partial meltdown. It was the most significant accident in U.S. nuclear power plant history, ranking a 5 out of 7 points on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

The core reactor fire at Chernobyl in 1986 ranked a full 7 on the INE scale.  My husband and I watched the evening news, stunned that day after day emergency crews in the Ukraine were unable to contain the fire and with it, the plumes of radioactive gasses and other material sent skyward.  No one ventured a guess as to the actual number of people affected by Chernobyl’s fallout.  I thought of Grandma Verna.  Sometimes the damage from radioactive poisoning revealed itself only much later with untreatable cancers.

One evening during the Chernobyl disaster, television news anchors reported that traces of radioactivity had been found in milk and dairy products as far away from Ukraine as Western Europe.  Even more frightening, they said Chernobyl fallout had penetrated the jet stream, and radioactivity had been detected in Hawaii, with the expectation that it would soon reach the western edge of the U.S.

I tried to dismiss this ominous news, thinking what were the chances that a nuclear accident in Russia would ever affect me and my family thousands of miles away in Idaho?  A day or so later I walked out to my garden in a light drizzle to cut some spinach for supper.  Then, per usual, my husband and I sat down to watch the evening news.  The newscaster announced the Chernobyl fallout had officially landed in America.  The area of heaviest radioactive concentration (though nothing to worry about, he assured his audience) was somewhere northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah.  The light rain this area was experiencing seemed to be bringing traces of fallout with it from the upper atmosphere.

I looked at Dale and knew we were both thinking the same thing:  we’d probably just eaten a radioactive spinach salad.  Of course, I thought miserably, Chernobyl fallout had to land here and not in some god-forsaken stretch of Nevada.  Maybe Grandma Verna’s long ago cobalt treatments were a foreshadowing.  Dale though, had a decidedly lighter view of the situation: “Let’s turn off the lamp and see if we light up in the dark.”  Not funny, I shook my head at him, not funny.

 

Image Credit:  Fallout Shelter  Image Credit:  Chernobyl

In the hospital . . .

I knew a man once who said the only reason to go to a hospital was to die.  I thought about what he said when my 86-year-old mother was admitted to the hospital this week due to shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate.  After spending some time with my mother there, I thought this man was completely off the mark about hospitals. Hospitals are more like gas stations than eternal rest stops.  People are mainly here for tune-ups and repairs. Then they go on their way.  And this hospital, like any good vehicle shop, was full of young, smart technicians using complex, computerized equipment, to do their repairs.  I was impressed, and more than a little intimidated.

Jack, a tall, slim nurse, probably close to thirty, tapped the veins in my mother’s arm looking for a good one to attach an IV.  Though his hair needed a wash and cut, his hand movements were quick and efficient.  He apologized when he had to stick another needle in mom’s arm to add an additional IV line.  Mom sighed and I patted her feet where they lay at the end of the bed, gently reminding her, “A feint-hearted warrior never won the battle field.” Jack didn’t look up from his work, but I saw a smile cross his face.

When Jack left, another young nurse with blue streaks running through her hair came into our room, and placed what looked like water wings, flotation devices for beginning swimmers, around my mother’s forearms.  Then she turned to a mounted computer and began rapidly typing.  Occasionally she glanced at the monitor above mom’s head, filled with line graphs and blinking numbers in different colors.  Mom’s “vitals” were all there: heart rate, oxygen level etc.

“Is my mother taking a swim?”

“Pardon?” the blue-haired girl turned to me.  I pointed to the water wings.

“Oh?” she nodded understanding. “Those are blood pressure monitors.”

I watched these highly skilled professionals wistfully, with their youthful flair and swagger.  I’d love to know what they knew, and be a part of the kind of energy that was everywhere apparent in the hospital.  I looked over at mom lying in her bed.  She once was a nurse.  Did she have these same thoughts?  But mom was quiet and seemed more relieved than anything else.  She’d been sick for a week or so, and was glad to be in a place where people could take care of her.  My brother and his wife came, and then the doctor, a petite woman with iron-grey hair and tiger-striped eye-glasses hanging from jesses around her neck.  She was one of the few doctors on duty this Sunday afternoon.  I saw her constantly checking on the status of her other patients using her cell phone.

“Mrs. Holland can you tell me a little bit about your shortness of breath,” she asked mom.

“Mom has terrible allergies . . .” I began to explain.

Without looking up from the old-school note pad she was scribbling on, the doctor waved her flat-palmed hand at me. “Thank you, but let’s let your mother speak for herself, shall we?”

I shrunk back in my seat becoming the observer I was meant to be in this tableau.  Overall, my sojourn at the hospital with mom was a humbling experience.  The man who told me the only reason to go to the hospital was to die—was wrong.  Yet in another way, he had a point.  Confronted by such a large complex institution, even one with a mission of compassion and healing, a patient (and their family) must in some sense, die to themselves.  They must give over their will in order that the hospital staff might help them.   It’s not really a devil’s bargain; it’s one of mercy—and that of course, makes all the difference.

 

Image Credit:  modern hospital room