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Chernobyl First Responder Reflects On Lessons Learned 35 Years After Explosion

This April 26, 1986 file photo shows an aerial view of the Ukrainian Chernobyl nuclear plant, with damage from an explosion and fire in reactor four on that sent large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. (Volodymyr Repik/AP)
This April 26, 1986 file photo shows an aerial view of the Ukrainian Chernobyl nuclear plant, with damage from an explosion and fire in reactor four on that sent large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. (Volodymyr Repik/AP)

In April 1986 — 35 years ago this week — some 30 people were killed when a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history, in terms of both cost and casualties. Radioactive particles were released in a cloud that drifted over most of Europe, causing devastating environmental, public health and socio-economic impacts.

Dr. Alla Shapiro, author of “Doctor on Call: Chernobyl Responder, Jewish Refugee, Radiation Expert,” was a first responder in the Soviet Union during that crisis. She writes about the experience in a recent USA Today op-ed.

Shapiro worked as a pediatrician at a hospital in Kyiv, not far from Chernobyl, when the meltdown happened. She says she learned about the nuclear accident from her father, who called to warn her.

But no one at the hospital officially learned of what exactly happened until 13 days after the explosion, she says.

Children, bussed in from the disaster zone, started pouring into her hospital. They had persistent coughs and psychological symptoms stemming from anxiety and fear, she says.

The hospital staff was “completely unprepared” to treat radiation exposure, Shapiro recalls. Training on the topic wasn’t part of their education at medical school or during residency. So doctors mainly treated patients based on their own intuition, she says.

That intuition told them they needed to put vulnerable children on oxygen. Tents filled with kids on oxygen tanks were set up outside the hospital, she remembers, and medical staff would play with the children to keep them calm.

Meanwhile, Shapiro got her then-3-year-old daughter to a safe location. She, however, was sent to the contamination zone two or three times with no clear instructions and no protective gear.

“I know that I was exposed to radiation, but I have no idea what doses of radiation I received because we were not given that device that measures the radiation,” she says. “This was the reality that we faced.”

More than two decades later, she was diagnosed with colon cancer while she was working in the United States. She believes it was a late effect of radiation exposure.

A variety of long-term health complications have been attributed to the nuclear explosion. The Chernobyl Forum, a group of United Nation agencies, assessed the different health impacts from the devastation and found childhood thyroid cancer to be the leading exposure-related illness.

Fortunately, Shapiro says she’s doing well today. Over the past 35 years, she’s made it her mission to develop countermeasures and medications for radiation exposure. She moved to the U.S. and began working on solutions with the Food and Drug Administration.

There are actionable ways to prepare for a nuclear disaster, she says. Physicians and medical students should have mandatory training for diagnosing and treating nuclear exposure, she advises.

Years after the incident, Mikhail Gorbachev called the Chernobyl disaster “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” The silence and secrecy from Soviet officials defined the aftermath of the explosion.

“Government officials, instead of scientists, were providing the information,” she says.

The Soviet Union collapsed five years following the events at Chernobyl.

Shapiro says the government’s role in “downplaying disaster” and “telling lies” ultimately “propelled the tragedy” — something many with lingering illnesses are still reeling from today.

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.