by Tamar Zaidenweber
Recently, there was an article in the New York Times, the first in a series examining “issues arising from the increasing use of medical radiation and the new technologies that deliver it.” It was about a man who was killed by a gross overdose in radiation treatment for his tongue cancer. After being diagnosed, Scott Jerome-Parks chose to be treated at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, where they had the new, Varian Linear Accelerator. Though his doctors initially suggested surgery and chemotherapy, Mr. Jerome-Parks opted for this newer form of therapy that allows for more concentrated, directed beams of radiation to treat cancer. What happened to him is completely unimaginable.
During the three-day course of radiation he was prescribed, technical malfunctions and poor quality control at St. Vincent’s led to Mr. Jerome-Parks’ ultimate death from an overdose in radiation. The machine, which was programmed to save his life, failed to save the prescribed regimen appropriately and overexposed him to radiation to an extent that eventually killed him.
The article also discusses the story of Alexandra Jn-Charles, whose 27 days of radiation were administered at three times the dose prescribed, causing a gaping wound in her chest that resisted healing and unspeakable pain. Ms. Jn-Charles eventually died from her cancer.
These stories, along with the countless other radiation mistakes the article references, many not nearly at the levels of destruction that Mr. Jerome-Parks and Ms. Jn-Charles endured, call to question our unyielding faith in the progress of medical technology.
These heart-wrenching stories only illuminate the need for further scrutiny and oversight, which is seriously lacking. New York State “will not disclose where or how often medical mistakes occur” and doctors who report radiation mistakes are guaranteed complete anonymity. New York is a leader in monitoring radiotherapy and collecting data on errors, but their measures are not adequate.
Stricter state regulation, and monitoring of radiation therapy mistakes and errors, along with regular inspections and increased funding for training can reduce errors and save lives. Further, clearer policies outlining best practices for those delivering radiation therapy, could drastically reduce the number of errors and unnecessary deaths. These could include requiring a test of each radiation prescription, further training with regard to monitoring the equipment, as well as regular mechanical maintenance to prevent system failures, as well as other policies.
It is time for policy-makers to take a step back and consider the safety of the patients over the financial security of the doctors. We must re-evaluate the blind trust we place in medical technology, and question it as much as we would anyone else.
The second article in the series can be found here.