The first among the first: doctors at the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident
The first among the first: doctors at the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident

Few people among the current employees of the ChNPP can name the 30 first victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Their names are carved on ABK-1 at the ChNPP and are presented on the central square in Slavutich. But there were also those who did really difficult and important work in April 1986. However, their names weren’t destined to get their letters in granite.

Of course, these are policemen, military men, miners, engineers, drivers and pilots. But there were also doctors! They fought not only with radiation, but also with a fragile human body, shot by a “peaceful atom”. Doctors didn’t have a concept of physical fatigue. They looked into the eyes of people who were watching over their dying relatives until the last hour.

“One tractor driver rode a bicycle in the morning to the MTS along the 4th power unit of the Chernobyl NPP. Radioactive dust hit his skin between the socks and legs. So, he immediately got alpha and beta burns. Their danger is that a chain reaction of small explosions starts inside the skin.

This tractor driver had a skin lesion. Burns began getting bigger and reached the groin area. It was extremely difficult to fight them. This was the first time we had encountered such a pathology. But we tried”, Anna Gubareva, a doctor at the National Cancer Institute of Ukraine, says. In April 1986, she was one of those who were the first to begin the struggle for lives of the liquidators of the Chernobyl disaster.

City hospital No. 126

That night, patients with symptoms of an acute radiation sickness began to arrive to a hospital No. 126 in the city of Pripyat. But all medical staff didn’t immediately realize that people who get to them received huge doses of radiation.

“We had a dressing room downstairs. A patient was brought from the ChNPP. He was the operator of the fourth power unit. He was breathing very hard. And burns covered his entire body… I asked what worried him. The patient hardly answered that he couldn’t breathe well. Then, I realized that he had burns of the respiratory tract. We took him upstairs. The patient almost stopped breathing. So, we transferred him to artificial respiration.

When we made a puncture, the blood went orange. I called the manager and asked him to look at the blood. He said it was hemolysis. Hemolysis means total radiation injury,” the Pripyat hospital nurse describes an episode from her watch. She tells about the second victim of the accident. It was the engineer of the ChNPP Vladimir Shashenok. He died on the same day, on April 26th.

Each new victim, taken to hospital No. 126, made it clear that the patients needed specialized assistance from expert radiologists. However, there was only one medical institution of a similar profile in the USSR. Clinic No. 6 of the Moscow City Department of Health was the only medical facility for working with people exposed to radiation accidents.

Moscow clinic No. 6

With the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a goal of keeping its own nuclear weapons. The United States had already tested a nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the Soviet Union lagged behind in this matter. So, dozens of special design bureaus and research institutes began to actively form at the end of the 40s. Objects for the creation of nuclear and other branches of the defense industry in the USSR appeared throughout the country.

New technologies for extraction and processing of radioactive materials required the implementation of special environmental protection measures. As a result, the country faced with the issue of safety of working conditions, prevention of occupational diseases and poisoning among workers of nuclear enterprises. It became necessary to scientifically substantiate the norms and rules of radiation safety, maximum permissible doses and concentrations of toxic substances. So, there was a need for a special study of early specific signs of completely new occupational diseases and poisoning caused by radioactive substances.

To solve these problems, the Third Main Directorate was created under the USSR Ministry of Health in 1947. Moreover, special research institutes formed in its system. They studied the effects of radiation and other physical and chemical factors on humans. In 1948, a closed-type clinical hospital formed on the basis of the Moscow neurosurgical hospital for disabled veterans of the Patriotic War.

Initially, the hospital had 200 beds for the treatment of patients from institutions and enterprises of the nuclear industry. The hospital got the name “Clinical Hospital of the Moscow City Health Department No. 6”. At the time of the Chernobyl disaster, Leonid Ilyin was in charge of the hospital No. 6. And Angelina Guskova was the head of the clinical department.

Dr. Guskova

Angelina Konstantinovna Guskova was born in 1924 in Nizhny Tagil. After graduating from the medical university, she worked in medical institutions serving the operational personnel of the plutonium plant No. 817. Since 1949, Angelina Guskova treated workers of construction and installation organizations and residents of the classified city of Chelyabinsk-40. In the same year, the Mayak chemical plant began operating in the city. The plant produced plutonium for the USSR nuclear program. Since that time, the first patients with acute radiation sickness began to appear in the USSR.

In 1957, the “first Chernobyl” took place at Mayak. Tanks containing 80 m³ of highly radioactive nuclear waste exploded. The explosion was equal to tens of tons in TNT equivalent. The concrete slab, 1 meter thick and weighing 160 tons, just dropped off. About 20 million curies of radioactive substances got into the atmosphere. They settled in the north-east of the plant along 300 km. However, the leadership hid this incident classifying all information. And they kept silent about people who had to experience radiation sickness.

In general, after the accident at Chelyabinsk-40, 2500 people had initial forms of radiation sickness. 49 patients had an acute form of the disease. Angelina Guskova and her co-worker Grigory Baysogolov were the first to formulate the principles of classification and treatment of radiation sickness. These principles such as blood restoration and infection control are still relevant today. For her experience and professionalism, Guskova received the status of a member of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in 1959. Moreover, she became an expert of the Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation at the UN in 1967.

Angelina Guskova and her colleagues wrote a monograph in the 1960s. One of the chapters was called “Dangers of Nuclear War”. The doctor considered diseases that an accident at a nuclear reactor could cause. This book got respect from the world scientific community. However, the Soviet authorities perceived it as an attempt to spread panic in society. In 1971, the monograph was published in a small print run. When the accident at the ChNPP occurred, it turned out that there was no other special literature at that time.

Angelina Guskova’s memories: Chernobyl patients

“… Some people sadly joked over us. They said that we wrote the scenario of the Chernobyl accident. This is because everything that happened coincided with what we described. My phone is always near the bed. It’s a habit and a necessity. I received a call from the Pripyat medical unit of hospital No. 126. They said that there is a fire at the station, and I may hear some explosions. So, I got information about the victims. Vomiting, redness on the body, weakness, diarrhea in a patient are the typical signs of an acute radiation sickness. However, they tried to convince me that plastic was burning, and emission gases poisoned people.

Then, I learned from new messages that the number of victims in the medical unit is increasing. It was already 120 people. I told them: “It is clear that this is not chemistry, but radiation injury. So, we will consult everyone… I’m going to the clinic. I call the emergency brigade to send it to Pripyat. By its return, the clinic must be ready to receive patients. The brigade came at 5 a.m. Everyone`s here, but I have to wait several hours! The top leadership doubted the need to send the brigade to Pripyat! So, the plane arrived only at 2 p.m., although the doctors could have been in Chernobyl eight hours earlier.

The first 28 critically ill patients got the clinic a day after the accident. A fierce struggle began to save them upon the arrival at Moscow Hospital No. 6. New patients made many changes to the hospital’s routine. The main task was to keep strangers out of the hospital rooms. This applied to both visitors and bacteria, which sharply worsen the condition of people whose immunity radiation completely destroyed.

Servicemen in chemical protection suits were standing in the corridors. All surfaces of the hospital (floors, walls, doors and furniture) were washed with unprecedented thoroughness and frequency. The staff changed the dressing gowns before entering the ward. In addition, overalls such as gloves, aprons and masks were obligatory. The processing of clothes and hands took place at the exit. Furthermore, there was a time limit for the personnel to spend in the zone of increased radioactivity. As a result, none of the staff of the hospital No. 6 got sick with radiation sickness… ”

An accident can’t be planned

Angelina Guskova’s right hand was a chief physician of the clinical department of hospital No. 6 Natalya Nadezhina. “The acute course of radiation sickness is divided into three periods. The first is the period of the primary reaction: nausea, headache, vomiting. The second is the latency period: imaginary well-being. The last and the most terrible is an extended period of pronounced clinical manifestations at the height of the disease.

The period of imaginary well-being in severe radiation sickness is very short, literally a few days. At first, all the patients talked, communicated with each other. But we already knew in the first days how someone would get sick. As a result, it was very difficult for the medical staff to look at young patients, realizing that some of them had no chance. At the same time, there wasn’t a need to show it supporting the sick so that they believe in the best and hope.”

Dr. Robert Gale is an American specialist who came to Moscow to work with liquidators: “Nowadays, there is nothing new in medicine that they did not have in 1986. If a similar accident happened tomorrow, its victims would be treated in the same way as the Chernobyl liquidators. During the treatment of the first liquidators, 13 bone marrow transplants were performed. But the radiation was stronger. 27 people died in the Moscow clinic No. 6.”

After the Chernobyl disaster, Angelina Guskova continued to work in Moscow. She was a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In one of her last interviews, she said: “An accident cannot be planned. But if this happens, it is necessary to really determine its scale and not hide the truth. This will allow you to competently organize measures to eliminate the consequences. The main thing is not to send a hundred people into the danger zone if ten is enough. It’s a shame that there were people who misled the public, trying to make a political career at Chernobyl.” Angelina Guskova died in 2015.