When it was time for him to return home, UCLA physician Robert P. Gale's grateful Soviet counterparts in Moscow embraced him with tears in their eyes.
The plight of the victims of the April 26 Chernobyl nuclear disaster also touched ordinary Americans, many of whose letters have ended up in the personal briefcase of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
In his first interview upon returning to the United States, Gale on Saturday recalled how his two weeks in Moscow were filled with frantic efforts to mobilize an extraordinary international medical rescue effort that involved 15 countries.
But whether those efforts are successful may not be known for weeks, said the bone marrow specialist.
"The real work starts now," Gale said, referring to the critical four-week period following a bone marrow transplant during which radiation victims are highly susceptible to bleeding problems and infections even when bolstered by strict isolation from germs, numerous blood transfusions and complex drug therapy.
Back in Los Angeles from the Soviet Union, where he and two UCLA colleagues and an Israeli bone marrow transplant expert helped Soviet doctors transplant life-giving marrow to 19 Chernobyl victims, Gale said he plans to return to Moscow in a "few days."
He arrived home Friday night aboard the private jet of Armand Hammer, the Los Angeles oil magnate whose contacts with high Soviet officials paved the way for the UCLA team to assist in treating victims of the world's worst nuclear accident.
About 300 Soviet citizens received severe radiation injuries, and at least 11 have died. Two others died during the initial explosion. In addition, at least 100,000 people will be examined periodically throughout their lives to monitor the long-term effects of radiation, according to Gale.
He and Hammer were interviewed aboard Hammer's jet after it landed.
"There were tears in the eyes of the Soviet doctors as they embraced us before we left," Hammer said.
Earlier in the week, Gale was driven to the Kremlin, where Gorbachev personally expressed his nation's gratitude for the outside medical assistance.
"He had just come from a Politburo meeting and his briefcase was filled with letters to take home," Hammer recounted. "He opened the case and showed us some from Americans with five-dollar and ten-dollar bills clipped to them."
Gale arrived alone in Moscow on May 2. He was quickly taken to Moscow Hospital No. 6. After a briefing by Soviet doctors, Gale sent an urgent message to UCLA, summoning Paul I. Terasaki, a tissue-typing expert, to Moscow. Another urgent request went to Dr. Yair Reisner, the Israeli physician who specializes in treating marrow in a way that helps prevent rejection.
The other UCLA team member dispatched was Dr. Richard Champlin, chief of UCLA's bone marrow transplant program.
The need to tissue type the radiation victims became apparent because none of them had been tissue typed prior to the accident. Tissue typing is essential to assure compatibility between a patient and a donor. "I don't think that anybody had thought of typing them (ahead of time)," Gale said.
White Blood Cells Destroyed
In at least six workers, radiation had destroyed all their white blood cells, which are used to determine tissue type. Lacking a means to find a matching donor--ideally an identical twin or other sibling--the Soviet and U.S. doctors were forced to use fetal liver transplants as a substitute, a highly experimental procedure believed to be the next best alternative.
In addition to calling for help from colleagues, Gale also had to order a long list of specialized supplies, medications and equipment. And he spent much of each day on the telephone with Rick Jacobs, Hammer's assistant at the Occidental Petroleum Corp. in Los Angeles. It was Jacobs who located the supplies and equipment and arranged for their immediate shipment to Moscow.
Gale's wife Tomar, who also was in Moscow, worked in Hammer's office there helping with the international communications.
"Sometimes there would be a blood counter coming in from France, cyclosporin (a transplant drug) from Switzerland and technicians from two other countries coming in to operate another piece of equipment--all of them arriving without visas and customs inspections," Gale said.
"That's something I've never seen before," said Hammer, who has personally known every Soviet leader since V.I. Lenin, founder of the Soviet state.
Aid from 15 Countries
In all, 15 countries contributed to the effort, he said.
"We didn't succeed in every case," Gale said, referring to the most severely irradiated, including firemen and at least one physician. "But as I look at it, 24 of the 35 are still alive. Most of the deaths have been from skin, gastrointestinal or liver damage from radiation, not from the transplants," he added.