Thursday, 17 March 2011
Thoughts on Radiation Poisoning
At the end of my first year at university, I began to get very ill.
I felt exhausted but hyperactive, I sweated all the time, I had panic attacks and my hair fell out, I had chronic stomach upsets, I kept losing weight no matter how much I ate, and I even had the occasional black-out.
What I found hardest to cope with were the palpitations and tremors - I couldn't even hold a pen without trembling, and I could constantly hear my heart beat. And if I lay flat on the floor, I could see the blood pumping through my aorta in my stomach as I'd got so thin.
God knows why. but I didn't tell my parents what was going on. But when I developed a goitre and weird, bulging eyes, they worked out that I had Graves' disease - a hereditary illness, which my mother had also suffered from.
Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder where the thyroid gland goes into overdrive; the thyroid gland controls metabolism, so basically it was as if I was on speed.
Thankfully, there was a treatment - an anti-thyroid drug called carbimazole, plus a course of beta-blockers to stop my heart racing.
I was warned however that the carbimazole had a (rare) side-effect of bone marrow suppression, and so if I ever got an infection, especially a sore throat, I'd have to report it immediately to have my white blood cell count checked. I get a lot of sore throats.
I'd also have to have my blood screened every month anyway to check that the drugs were working and that my thyroid hormone levels were stabilising.
From then on, my life was spent going in and out of hospital, being punctured for blood samples - the insides of my elbows were perpetually bruised and I looked like a junkie.
You're probably wondering why I'm telling you all this - I mean, what's this got to do with radiation poisoning?
Well, unfortunately, the drug treatment didn't work, and after three years I was told I had to come off the carbimazole, as for obvious reasons it wasn't a long-term solution.
The only options I had now was a thyroidectomy or radioiodine treatment. A phobia about having my throat slit meant the thyroidectomy was out of the question. Moreover my grandpa, another Graves' sufferer, had had the operation, and it had left him with a necklace-shaped scar which I really didn't want.
So I went for the radioiodine. I'd read the leaflet - it was just a drink and seemed harmless enough.
My parents took me to the hospital, where a nurse told me to go to a secure wing. I opened the door and noticed there were nuclear symbols everywhere (like the one pictured at the top) and suddenly I felt very afraid.
The only people I could see were technicians wearing full-body protective outfits, like the ones they wear at the end of ET. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but began to feel slightly hysterical.
One of them came up to me, took my form with my details out of my hand, and asked me to wait in a small room. I sat there in my jeans and my top, feeling woefully underdressed and horribly alone.
The technician came back after ten long minutes and then handed me an innocuous-looking little bottle with a straw sticking out of it. It was one of those white bottles you have in Chemistry class to dispense drops of distilled water. Again I wanted to laugh.
She told me to drink it all down. I drank it - it tasted of nothing. She then told me to go home and to shower thoroughly and wash my clothes as soon as I got in, and that was that.
I got home, I did as I was told. I was ill for a week - flu-like symptoms - which I had been warned about and so was prepared for.
What I hadn't reckoned on was feeling like a pariah. After radioiodine treatment, you emit radiation from your neck for at least a week, so you can't go near any other humans in case you poison them too - the young, the old, and the pregnant being particularly susceptible to radiation poisoning.
I had to take a week off lawschool and became a complete hermit for that period, which had the added effect of making me terribly lonely, as well as a radioactive outcast.
So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that my minor experience of radiation was pretty frightening. However, and this is the important bit, it was entirely voluntary.
I keep thinking of the people in Japan, and how if anything should happen to them because of the situation in Fukushima right now, it wasn't their choice.