Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Martyrs, Part 3

(A tribute and a lesson in three fictionalized vignettes. The images are copyrighted by Radiology Centennial, Inc.)

       "Doctor, is there anything I can help you with?"
       "No," Dr. Kassabian grumbled.
       He shoed away the medical student without looking up.
       "Are you sure? I can--"
       "No! I'm quite alright ."
       "I just--"
       "Good evening!"
       The student hesitated. Something twisted in young man's face. Dr. Kassabian couldn't bear to see it.
       The doctor moved his pen, but didn't lay ink on paper. Finally, the young man's heels pattered down the hospital halls.
       At last. Peace.

       A few lights burned in the windows of Medico-Chirurgical Hospital. The rest of Philadelphia slipped between bed linens.
       Dr. Kassabian never slept any more.
       He tapped and tapped, thinking, then the words once again emptied onto his journal papers. Descriptions of symptoms. Interpreted tests. A recitation of the patient's complaints.
       A dreadful case. So many sorrows. But he yanked down his professional detachment like a curtain. It was his only hope. If he cracked now, all would be lost.
       He yawned.
       At times, the faceless hours of darkness would leap in random measures. He would write, then wake with his face pressed against paper, against the table. Never long, though. Not enough time to dream.
       Despite the lonely quiet, his mind still rolled with some momentum. He would do a little more. Naps could come later.
       On the table, his camera lay disassembled. With careful handling, his aching fingers erected the frame. It took too long, but while he struggled, the task pushed away his darker thoughts. When the apparatus was finished, though, much of the despair roared back.
       He laid his hands down and closed his eyes. He tried not to dwell on his fingers.
       With a pedal, he triggered the exposure.

       He noted the time and date in the journal.
       Document the patient. Record the unstoppable progress, the cancers erupting from healthy tissues. Skin. Bones. Lymphatic structures.
       Growing. Growing.
       He documented the pain, but refused to acknowledge it. Maybe they would learn from him.
       Maybe he didn't lay down his life in vain.

Dr. Mihran Kassabian (1870-1910)


       Standing in a quiet spot outside St. George's Hospital in Hamburg, Germany stands a monument to the radiation martyrs. One hundred and fifty-nine names were inscribed on the stone upon its erection in 1936. Hundreds more have been added since. These vignettes have been the stories of three of those victims. Their deaths are fact. My stories are not. With them, however, I've tried to restore the flesh on cold words in cold stone.
       On November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered x-rays. Imagine the excitement! An invisible light which dove into the body and emerged carrying miraculous information about the structures within. The implications for science and medicine were vast. But the same miraculous power of penetration held an insidious danger. X-rays are a form of ionizing radiation, which living tissue cannot endure. Long term effects of ionizing radiation are irreversible cellular and genetic damage. Short terms effects of high doses include the hideously painful x-ray burns.
       So, who were the x-ray martyrs? They were the dedicated scientists, nurses, physicians, and technicians whose deaths helped us understand that nature does not respect human fancies. The laws action and reaction, cause and effect, are void of morality. As brightly as the triumphs of science may shine, just as brightly burn the devastation of its mistakes.
       The first of my vignettes honors a nun who developed aggressive cancer in her hands after exposing herself to x-rays again and again to put the children of her hospital at ease. Such a poignant story. I must apologize about her name, however. I read about her in a source maintained by a European radiological society. In the months since I found it, the source has been removed. An email to the society went unanswered. Therefore, I chose the name Sister Hathaway to represent her. If I find her true name again, I will correct the story.
       The second victim is Clarence Darrow, the first x-ray martyr in the United States. He was a glass blower in Thomas Edison's lab. After constructing each x-ray tube, he would test its operation and strength by observing his own hands in a fluoroscope. He too developed an aggressive cancer in his hands. Despite the progressive amputation of his fingers, hands, arms, then even his scapula (shoulder blades) the cancer still spread. His period of illness and death is reported to have been agonizing.
       The last victim is Dr. Mihran Kassabian, a physician in the Medico-Chirurgical Hospital of Philadelphia. He suffered the same fate after repeated, unprotected exposure to x-rays in his lab. He meticulously documented the progression of his disease for posterity. It was the final gift he was empowered to give.
       You've now seen the quaint photographs of an innocent age and reflected on the sacrifice these souls unwillingsly made. A lesson learned? A time of naivete left behind?
       I think not.
       Look around you. Look at yourself. There will always be martyrs. So long as our hopes outpace our fears, there will be those who pay the price of evolving knowledge. New therapies, new drugs, new technologies--despite all our prudence, only time will reveal the dreadful mistakes. Who will be next? You? Me? Should we stop pushing forward?
       We should learn with care, minimize the risks, but when the inevitable tragedies come, learn even then. Let hope shine brighter than fears.
       And don't let the martyrs die in vain.

Back to Part 2


Rene said...

Wow, great stuff. And depressing. You did a lovely job capturing this man's journey. Amazing how we can take such things for granted.

Bernita said...

The Curries too, suffered.

Sarah said...

What a fascinating piece of history! And you portrayed these people in a very compelling and poignant manner.. Great job!

mermaid said...

You respect them like they are responsible for your existence. It's what I love about your writing,. You open the eyes of others, and sometimes, if you're lucky, you crack open their hearts, too.

beadinggalinMS said...

A job well done Jason!!

LiVEwiRe said...

Dr. Kassabian's documentation must have been agonizing as he was the patient in that instance. These have been incredible and enlightening stories. It's good to be reminded where we came from in an effort to understand how we should proceed. You must have put so much work into these - well worth it from this end.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm so glad that someone remembers things like this.

In fact, I might have to send you another picture...

Anonymous said...

I'm in the midst of a 2-day seminar (ugh). Gotta keep that law license current, after all. Anyway, sorry for the delay in responding.

Rene, thanks for stopping by! I was really intrigued by the story of the x-ray martyrs when I first heard it a few months ago. If you do a search on the internet, you'll find they're not widely remembered. I hope I've added a bit to the available history.

Bernita, yes, the Curries are radiation martyrs also. It's sad that the way they died is only a footnote to their discoveries. I imagine they themselves felt more strongly about it.

Sarah, I'm glad that it resonated with you. You know what really hit me yesterday? I was doing the last bit of research and realized that Dr. Kassabian's hospital stood mere blocks from where I work. I was about to take a walk over there when I learned that the building was demolished long ago to make room for the road which leads to the art museum made famous in Rocky (the stairs scene).

Mermaid, you always see right into the heart of what I'm doing. Such a keen power of observation. Opening eyes and hearts, yes, that's often what I'm trying to do here.

Anonymous said...

BeadinggalinMS, thank you!

Livewire, thank you for appreciating the work! Yes, I think this history is very instructive for the future. There have been martrys to science since these. The thalidomide babies and the recent victim of estrogen replacement therapy, for example. I sit on an Institutional Review Board which reviews and approves human research. Some of those harms from drugs only emerge after many people take them and time passes. I wish it weren't so, but it happens that way. (Knowing your profession, I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here).

Sandra, another picture? I'm always up for the challenge!

anne frasier said...

wow, jason. that was amazing! it gave me goosebumps. i know nothing about the short story market, but i wouldn't think you'd have any trouble getting this published. wowzers!

Jeff said...

You write amazingly fitting tributes with photos to match. I always look forward to them. Well done, Jason. :)

Kelly Parra said...

A wonderful job, Jason! Thank you for sharing these stories and melding thme with history. =D

Anonymous said...

Anne, I was hoping someone would say 'it gave me goosebumps.' I'm glad I'm not the only one!! Sometimes I get this amazing feeling of connection with a place or time or history. When it happens, on come the goosebumps.

Jeff, I very much appreciate that. I do feel a sense of eagerness when I'm in the midst of doing these pieces. Thanks for giving me that fuel!

Kelly, thanks! I hope they would have appreciated my emphathy for them.

Antonia said...

It is great and scary at the same time....
great that you digged that out...the should make a book out of this...keep these projects going...reminds me also a tiny lil bit of WG Sebald...

Melissa Marsh said...

Jason - absolutely amazing. I had no idea of the x-ray martyrs, and I'm so glad you brought it to my attention. I think you should submit this somewhere - or even turn the history into an article and submit it to a history magazine. This is something I don't think a lot of people know about - it's worth looking into.

You managed to capture their stories so well - you need to share with a larger audience! :-)

Terri said...

I agree - you've put so much work and heart into this, it deserves to be published somewhere. I found the vignettes interesting and poignant, and they're a wonderful tribute to these martyrs. Well done, and thank you!

Anonymous said...

Antonia, welcome! I'm always thrilled to see new faces!!! WG Sebald...I'm embarrassed to say I'm not familiar with that author (I'm off to check). I appreciate the kind words. Hope to see you back. :)

Melissa, thank you! I appreciate the vote of confidence. An article in a history magazine is an interesting thought. I could give it a whirl. In the meantime, I'm at an exciting point in my WIP. I expect to have the first draft done (by far the hardest milestone for me) by the end of this week!! Oh yeah!

Terri, thanks for coming on the journey with me! Hopefully I captured something meaningful and unique.

Shesawriter said...

I learn something new every time I come to this blog, though I will say it kinda made me sad. Your wonderful writing made up for it though. :-)


Melissa Marsh said...

First draft done by the end of this week??? Wow! That is AWESOME! You will celebrate, of course!!! :-)

Eileen said...

You've got a great concise writing style. You nail it without the fluff.

Anonymous said...

Tanya, I know what you mean. Perhaps, though, they deserve our sadness. We've all reaped the benefits of their sacrifice.

Melissa, yes, a celebration is in order!! I worked and reworked my first novel so long, it's a great relief to have a completely new, stronger manuscript on the table!

Eileen, thank you for that feedback! I've worked hard on creating an expressive, strong style, while keeping it tight and lean. Observations like yours let me know I'm getting somewhere with it. =D

Antonia said...

Hi Jason, this what you do and also your new post really strongly reminds me of the works of WG Sebald who as well uses photos in his novels who are somehow not so really novels but then somehow they are and he tells the stories of people just similar like those x-ray people...
and there are not many who do it in this keep this going for it is really fascinating....

Anonymous said...

Antonia, you know, that's one of the things people say about this blog I never expected. The harmony between the photography and writing seems to strike a chord in people. Based on early comments, I started doing it more.

I have to say that doing this blog has done wonders for helping me target my writing. I used to write more paranormal suspense/horror, but I see now that my strength and reader interest lies elsewhere.

M. G. Tarquini said...

hi, Jason! This is interesting, but not an unknown bit of history. The History Channel did a series on radiology history recently and I've seen documentaries on this and related topics over the years. The history of the Curies is well-known. Every rad tech and radiologist in the world is monitored for exposure and they all know why. This history is taught as a routine matter in medical school and allied health programs related to radiology.

Shoe stores used to flouroscope kids' feet as late as the 1950's to make sure the shoes fit correctly. They knew radiation exposure caused cancer, but dosing took time to work out. They didn't think those doses could be harmful.

Anonymous said...

M.G., I don't think that the deaths of 300+ early scientists and x-ray technicians is widely known (as the reactions to these posts indicate). Of course, the radiation regulatory bodies and current radiology workers are entirely a different story. For them, the potential harms all too present.

As for the use of fluoroscopes into the 50's, I saw several studies much earlier which described the dangers. Yet, public use of fluoroscopes continued. I think the reason had more to do with public naivete than the state of scientific knowledge. There are times when people simply resist bad news.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Jason, Google 'centennial radiology' for a wealth of info on the topic. 1995 was the centennial year for Roentgen's discovery of the x-ray, though there is controversy over whether he's the first discoverer. There's a wealth of information, history, photos dating from that year, in many venues from medical to layman.

I don't think martyr is the right term to use. They didn't stick their hands under the beam knowing they would die. They did it to adjust dosing, test equipment, etc. Neither was it foolhardy, because they had no clue beyond the hand getting red. Had they known it would give them cancer, they wouldn't have done it. People drank radium cocktails at radium parties because they thought radium was good for them. Same was thought of x-rays, that it was a miracle and a good thing.

Anonymous said...

M.G., yes, the pictures are from great material prepared for the centennial (as my copyright note indicates).

As for use of the term, yes, you can argue it's applicability since the victims did not knowing choose death. I'm not so tied to that distinction, however. Martyrdom is a term often used in instances when the victim did not have a choice. In any event, it's a convenient phrase coined by others.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Well, there it all is then, in one article. Martyr is emotionally charged term, meant to get attention. In this case, I believe it to be inaccurate. Dr. Kassabian's documentation is poignant, but it's what doctors do, especially in the medical research model of the time. The training was to observe and record, hammered into them. If you ever get a chance, visit the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, a testament to this technique.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...


I was driving around today and all of a sudden I thought of Marie Curie - one of mt fav peoples to study in elementary school.

I was a loner back in 5th grade when my wonderful teacher gave me a book on the life of Marie Curie. I guess it was the teacher's way to tell me I was okay.

Then I come here, and I find this!

Coincidence? Hmmm.

Lisa S. said...

Dana, we are too alike! I was the loner too but I sure raided my elementary school library and by 6th grade I think I had read every one of the biographies of famous women that they had there. I could never get into reading biographies about famous men though.. And Marie Sklodowska Curie was a fave since she was a Polish girl, just like a quarter of me and my hometown.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Lisa, I never put the two together, but I just realized that that may be the very reason I have a weakness for Polish pastries. =)

cheesemeister said...

Pretty incredible. Thank you for sharing it. I wish we learned more about people like this in school.

Anonymous said...

Dana, that is a curious (no pun intended) coincidence! Something about that time period really draws me. Strange, I know.

Lisa, I'd hazard a guess that we writer types weren't always the most integrated youngsters in school. I had friends, but never felt completely comfortable there.

Cheesemeister, very happy you enjoyed the series! I agree that some of the more off-the-beaten-path stories would be a great addition to our education in school.