(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 ."
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.
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.
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.
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