[ RadSafe ] hundreds of cancer patients too high a dose of radiation.

Dawson, Fred Mr Fred.Dawson199 at mod.uk
Mon Oct 22 07:22:12 CDT 2007


Earlier this year, a major scandal erupted in France when it was
discovered that between 1989 and 2006, two radiotherapy units had
accidentally given hundreds of cancer patients too high a dose of
radiation. Five patients have since died and many others have been left
in crippling pain. 
Walking into the closed radiotherapy unit at Epinal hospital felt
exactly like the moment when the front curtain lifts on a Samuel Beckett
The audience sees the sparse props and unforgiving backdrop and senses
the desolation to come. 
In the dimly lit hospital corridor, an abandoned wheelchair had been
dumped among stacked crates and cardboard boxes, which were spewing out
uneven brown paper files. Two or three women in white coats moved
noiselessly through the cartons, picking out random papers and taking
them to the photocopier. 
The cancer unit is never the cheeriest ward of a hospital, but the staff
members are always careful to be upbeat and positive. 
With no-one around to need reassuring, though, the usual chatter at the
Epinal radiotherapy department had been silenced and the atmosphere felt
eerie and heavy with hushed secrets. 
Radiation excess 
But what happened here is no longer a secret. 
In this unit, hundreds of cancer patients - perhaps many more - were
burnt by high-energy X-rays, which were meant to cure them. 
Radiotherapy treats cancer by using strong X-rays to destroy cancer
cells while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. 
Set the dose too high, however, and normal cells can be irreparably
At least 24 people who were treated here accidentally received 20% more
than the amount they should have received. 
Five of those have died and the rest now have acute health problems. 
More than 700 patients received around 8% more than they should have and
it has recently come to light that hundreds of others may also have been
put at risk. 
Hence the painstaking search by the white-coated women through the old
paper files, the incessant trips to the photocopier and the carefully
worded letters of regret. 
Victims' campaign 
Among the names on those cardboard folders is that of prostate cancer
sufferer Philippe Stabler. 
He is the kind of man who exudes warmth and affability and who is
solicitous about his guests' comfort. 
He is constantly stoking his fire for us, and when he realises our
cameraman does not speak French, he tries to make jokes about the rugby
in English to make sure he is included. 
No wonder this is the man who has founded and is fronting an association
for all the radiotherapy victims. 
He flicks through a book of press cuttings and laughs at a photo of
himself in which his eyes look a bit red. 
"I was crying just before that was taken," he says. "I asked them to
stop taking my picture but the photographers said not to worry because
they'd Photoshop it - they'd digitally alter it". 
If only they could patch over what is happening to Mr Stabler's insides
as well. 
After receiving an excessive dose of radiation during his cancer
treatment, part of Mr Stabler's lower intestine is now ulcerated. 
I asked him what it means in his day -to-day life and he reddened,
apologised for the scatological detail, and said it means he now has a
very close relationship with the lavatory. 
He talked of pain and blood and admitted that it is now a to risk drive
the hour between home and work because he cannot trust his bowels to
hold out anymore. 
Quite suddenly he began to cry. 
Translation problems 
When he had recovered his composure, he insisted other victims were
suffering far more than he was. 
A woman treated seven years ago for breast cancer, is still sleeping
with a bag of ice on her chest each night to calm the burning. 
A son watching his father die in an old people's home in the horrific
knowledge that, just like his father, he has also accidentally received
an overdose of radiation. 
A major investigation is now under way to try to establish how so many
mistakes could have been made. 
The radiotherapists who administered the treatment have been suspended,
the radiotherapy units shut down and the machinery overhauled or
Incredibly, one of the lines of inquiry will be why the instruction
booklets that accompanied the equipment were in English when the
hospital staff of course were French. 
Compensation battle 
In the Jean Monnet hospital, I watched the technician tinker silently
with the radiotherapy machine while the white-coated women methodically
combed through the files, their faces blank. 
And so begins the long battle for compensation. 
I ask Philippe Stabler what he wants to happen next, what he is waiting
He smiles at me and gently strokes his grey moustache: "I want to hear
the word sorry," he says simply. 
"But I just hope we'll all still be around when it's finally said." 

Fred Dawson
Fwp_dawson at hotmail.com

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