Radioactive by accident

When 35-year-old Jayamma was brought to the Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology ((KMIO) in Bangalore for advanced cervical cancer treatment, little did she anticipate the nightmare that lay in store for her.

Jayamma was selected for Brachy therapy, in which sources of radiation are kept inside the affected part of a cancer patient's body. A plate made of 18 plastic tubes, each containing a small iridium wire, were inserted inside Jayamma's cervical tumour. Eighteen hours later, the stipulated time for the iridium insertion, the doctors realised the seals of some of the plastic containers had come loose and three pieces of iridium had fallen free inside the patient.

Since the last two months now, Jayamma has been kept under quarantine while the doctors ponder over ways to extract the iridium. They are unable to pinpoint the exact location of the radioactive wires, which may be floating anywhere within the patient. "It is like searching for a single strand of human hair that has dropped onto the floor," explains Dr N Anantha, the distraught KMIO director. He insists the iridium treatment was given only to reduce Jayamma's tumour pain as she was already a terminal case even before she was admitted at KMIO. Jayamma was the twelfth person to be put under Brachy therapy at the KMIO, though the technology has been tried and tested elsewhere.

Anantha contends also that the operation was carried out with Jayamma's knowledge and says he has her thumb impression on the consent sheet as proof. Jayamma and her child were abandoned by her husband soon after her cancer was diagnosed. She is ignorant of what has happened. "Maybe they asked my father," she says. "I have no idea about it."

Meanwhile, KMIO doctors are debating whether it would be safe to operate on their patient. "Anyone going near her will be exposed to strong gamma radiation. Physicists who handle the element stand behind lead shields. What can we do?" they ask helplessly.