When I was Young No. 18 – Radiation


The Wilber house where we lived in Van Hook was still not fully insulated during the winter of 1948-49 and was rarely warm. Mother blamed that for my having several colds and ear infections.

I don’t remember listening to a Minot radio station but I do remember WCCO Minneapolis and KFYR Bismarck. Every evening one or the other would have Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Captain Midnight, and other shows designed to stir the imagination of boys my age.

But, I became a speaker hog. I could not hear without being close or having the radio at full blast. My hearing became worse and my throat was sore nearly all the time.

Dr. Blatherwick, son of the doctor who had delivered me in Sanish, held appointments in Van Hook only once a week. Colds or ear aches were not considered a real reason to spend money on a doctor visit. Vicks VapoRub on the chest or under the nose for the cold and a warm cloth on the affected ear was usually good enough. When my speaker hogging became an issue, Mother did get me in to see him.

He told her I would have to have my tonsils and adenoids removed but would have to go to Minot to have the operations. He only did emergency surgery if someone had to have a wound or injury sewn up.

In Minot, Dr. Ayash[1] was not able to get all of the adenoids by surgery because they had grown into my inner ear channels. I’m not sure how many post-surgery visits I had with him but it must have been on the third or fourth when I realized that there was something different about the procedure he was using. With that realization, treatment became unnerving to me.

He would come into the room wearing what appeared to be a very heavy lab coat. A nurse, also wearing heavy lab outfit, brought a large cylinder that she seemed to have some difficulty carrying. I was covered with a heavy blanket and Mother was not allowed in the room. Dr. Ayash put on gloves that went all the way up to the sleeves of his coat. He took what looked like a small silver cylinder, rounded on each end, on the end of a piece of piano wire out of the heavy container.

That thing was greased with something the consistency of Vaseline and smelled like mint. He put the silver thing up my nose one nostril at a time. When I asked about the blanket, lab coats and case for the object I learned that they were lead and the lead was to protect me from radiation.

I knew what most twelve-year-olds knew about radiation. When we had lived in Pasco, WA, during the WWII years, I had overheard one of the women say that people who worked at the Hanford Atomic Energy Pant would turn green from the radiation.

When he came into the room on what may have been my last visit and before he took the “wire” out of the lead case, I said that I had to go to the toilet. It had occurred to me that my brain was not protected from whatever it was he was putting up my nose. I found a restroom on another floor and crawled on to a ledge behind some equipment. They found me but I don’t remember what happened after that.

He was using radium to burn the adenoid tissue from my inner ear. Now and then I worry about my brain and pituitary gland having been seriously affected by the radium treatment[2].

I’m 79 at the time of this writing and the only obvious impact is that I can’t remember if I wrote this story and the others or not.

[1] Mother always made a point of identifying him as an Iranian.

[2] During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, tens of thousands — children, mostly — received a treatment called nasal radium therapy, in which a radium-tipped probe was inserted in the nostrils. At the time the procedure, pioneered by doctors at Johns Hopkins, looked like a successful way to treat hearing loss, tonsillitis and colds. Today, it appears to have been a serious mistake.

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