Radiation Therapy Offers Cure, But Greater Risk for Harm Without Proper Safety Procedures

Scott Jerome-Park’s death was agonizing, to say the least: the nightmare began when he received a fatal dose of radiation at a New York City hospital which left him deaf, with ulcers in his mouth and throat, nearly blind, with teeth falling out, and in severe pain. Scott died a few weeks after Christmas in 2007 at age 43, with the wish that the hospital’s error be studied and publicized so no one else would have to undergo the same agony that he did.

The radiation overdose first occurred when Scott was being treated for tongue cancer at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Unfortunately, the hospital staff failed to recognize a computer error that directed a linear accelerator to blast his brain stem and neck with high levels of radiation–which happened three days in a row. Nearby, at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, Alexandra Jn-Charles also suffered a similar fate. While being treated for breast cancer, 32-year-old Alexandra received 27 days of radiation overdoses, 3 times the correctly prescribed amount. The radiation burned a gaping wound in her chest, so painful that she considered committing suicide. Alexandra died approximately a month after Scott, leaving behind two children.

It is true that radiation therapy can save lives and serious accidents are rare. However, accidents, such as those suffered by Scott and Alexandra, have been shielded from the public by doctors, hospitals, and the government. However, the New York Times recently analyzed the records from New York State hospitals. Overall, the NYT found 621 mistakes between 2001 and 2008 associated with radiotherapy. Furthermore, they also found that on 133 occasions, “devices used to shape or modulate radiation beams…were left out, wrongly positioned, or otherwise misused.” Despite New York State’s knowledge of the overdoses on Alexandra and Scott, they imposed no punishment and only levied fines of $1,000 on St. Vincent’s and $1,500 on University of Brooklyn Hospital.

Overall, while radiation therapy can save lives, it can also kill when advanced technology isn’t properly used. Specifically, according to the NYT’s investigation, therapy errors were most often attributed to “software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing or training.”

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