Life, Immobilized

I have a guest blogger today! My sister Amanda was inspired to write about her experience of returning to the office after sixteen months away, and I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!  

-Em : )

I drove to the office this week to have my laptop fixed, my first time back in over a year. I stood in the hallway where there was once hustle and bustle, and the only word that came to mind was “forlorn.”  As I walked down those abandoned halls, an eerie feeling overtook me.

I look at my reflection in the glass panels that once greeted those that entered and exited the rooms lining the hallway. There is no one on the other side of the glass. Disembodied voices of past occupants bounce off empty room walls. I glance in each room as I continue to my desk. Whiteboards display notes from meetings, details of work to finish — work long since completed from a home office.

I seemed to be in alternate world where time stopped.  I asked myself, maybe even mouthed the words, is this what Chernobyl looked like?  

Streets are empty, not a person to be found. A kettle sits on the stove. Bikes clutter the front lawn tipped over where they landed, at the ready for the next big adventure. Chalkboards display spelling words from the lesson of the day. Clothes hang on the line waiting for people to return from their daily errands and commitments. 

It may seem odd to connect such different events, the COVID 19 pandemic and the Chernobyl disaster. Both were devastating and unforeseen. Both have silent killers lurking, something we can’t smell, see, or taste. Both emptied schools and offices. 

The Chernobyl accident occurred at a nuclear power plant in the Ukraine in 1986.  The explosion in Pripryat resulted in radioactive fallout, laying a blanket of radioactive dust as the contamination plume spread across eastern Europe. Surprisingly, the death toll was relatively low in comparison to the magnitude of the accident, but post exposure-related illnesses are still being documented.    

The COVID 19 pandemic, on the other hand, has resulted in many deaths and continues to plague the world. Post COVID complications are already being documented. 

Both events have commonalities of science, time, and distance. 

The aftermath of Chernobyl is dictated by the very black and white laws of radiation physics, where the only solution is time and distance. The rule is the inverse square law: by doubling your distance from the source of radiation, you are quartering the dose received. With respect to time and radioisotopes, each has a characteristic rate at which it will decay, a half-life. This can range from fractions of a second to a shocking, almost unbelievable number of years. It is a waiting game.

COVID 19 was also dictated by science where the early solution was time and distance.  Allow scientists time to research and develop a vaccine and in the interim, maintain six feet of distance (and other precautionary directives that require human cooperation). As time passed, science has provided a detection method (where I think they swab your brain twice via not one but both nostrils), treatment and the dedicated clinicians that studied science and medicine to treat those suffering, and a vaccine.

In Pripryat, some of those that lived within the evacuated exclusion zone have moved back. Others have made a home elsewhere. Some of us who evacuated office life as we knew it to “shelter in place” are venturing out again. We are still navigating our way through the new normal.

I am linked to each of these events that uprooted and paused life; explicitly to one, implicitly to the other.  I lived through one and I can’t forget the consequences of the other.    

The study and use of radiation specifically in oncology is my life and livelihood.  

I am proud to be a part of a dedicated group of people who have chosen to focus their lives on radiation medicine.  We know all too well the devastation radiation can cause. These topics were part of our clinical education. These topics are part of our current safety discussions. Patient safety is always first and foremost on our minds.

These empty halls I walked, evacuated by a pandemic, these whiteboard discussions I heard when I closed my eyes, these vacant desks where papers lay all center on one topic, the development of software used every day in radiation oncology clinics across the globe. 

-Amanda Lambeth-Meyers