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With the Chernobyl Victims : An American Doctor's Inside Report From Moscow's Hospital No. 6

July 06, 1986|DR. RICHARD CHAMPLIN | Dr. Richard Champlin is chief of bone marrow transplant surgery at UCLA Medical Center.

The phone call from Moscow came on a Sunday, at 10 in the morning. The weary voice of Dr. Robert P. Gale was barely audible: "Dick, the Soviets have agreed to let you, (Dr. Paul) Terasaki and (Dr. Yair) Reisner come. There's a 3 o'clock flight available to Moscow today. Can you make it with the supplies?"

I'd prepared myself for this for the past three days, assuming that the Soviets would grant me the visa to deliver needed medical supplies and equipment from the West and to assist Gale in transplanting healthy bone marrow to the victims of the April 26 explosion and radiation leak at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. Yet my response must have seemed cryptic. "We'll bring what we can," I told Gale, and hung up.

I was excited and apprehensive, but there wasn't time to sort through my feelings. I told the news to my wife, Mary Jane, and ran out the door and drove to my office on the fourth floor of the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood. There, two assistants and a doctor were already rapidly packing the last of the medical goods that would soon comprise a makeshift, modern blood-typing laboratory in an aging Moscow hospital.

Several of us had spent the three days since Gale's departure on May 1 collecting supplies from the UCLA Medical Center pharmacy and through connections made by Armand Hammer, the chairman of Occidental Petroleum and the man who arranged for Gale to go to Moscow. Gale had telephoned at all hours, day and night, from the private office Hammer keeps in Moscow, each time asking that yet another antibiotic be added to the list of medicines needed to help the victims fight the life-threatening infections resulting from severe radiation exposure. The Soviets, he reported, also lacked the equipment and chemicals necessary to perform large-scale bone marrow transplants--in particular, the six-inch-long, heavy-duty needles designed for extracting bone marrow from donors, as well as the reagents that preserve the bone marrow once it's been harvested.

At the medical center, Nancy Lyddane, a research nurse, Kyoung Lee, a research technician, and Dr. Drew Winston, a infectious-disease specialist, had packed six crates of drugs and supplies. They had six more to fill before the flight, now just three hours off. We waited until the last possible moment to bring out the perishable chemicals. I telephoned Mary Jane and told her to pack my bags with trail mix and jogging suits for an indefinite stay in the Soviet Union. Then we loaded the crates into a station wagon provided by Hammer.

Soon, my wife and two daughters, Stephanie, 13, and Kristin, 7, arrived to take me to L.A. International Airport. As Mary Jane drove, I went through my bags in a last-minute search to make sure I had everything I needed. There were eight jogging suits and enough undershirts to last me a year--and only a couple of pairs of slacks. I threw some of the undershirts and jogging suits into the back seat but kept the trail mix and even a few rolls of film in case I had some free time.

After pulling up in front of the Lufthansa terminal at the airport, an associate of Hammer's (who'd driven the loaded station wagon from UCLA), my wife, the two youngest members of this international effort and I hustled the crates--some of which weighed 50 pounds--from the car and lined them up in front of the airline's check-in counter. I boarded the plane carrying a briefcase, a crate with the most precious and perishable of the supplies in dry ice, several medical books on bone marrow transplants that I planned to give to the Soviets, and an overnight bag. A flight attendant refused to seat me because I'd exceeded the airline's limit of one carry-on bag. No matter that the plane was half-empty. The attendant finally took my bag and checked it in down below. I took a seat next to Paul Terasaki, an international authority in tissue typing and the director of UCLA's tissue-typing laboratory. Yair Reisner, a biochemist and immunologist from the Weizman Institute in Israel and currently a fellow at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, would be meeting us in Moscow.

Reisner, I knew from an earlier conversation, was anxious about the arrangements. None of us had visas--they were to be issued to us upon our arrival, an unprecedented procedure. But Reisner's situation was complicated by being an Israeli citizen; since Israel doesn't have diplomatic relations with the USSR, its citizens are usually not granted visas. He'd insisted over the phone that Gale meet him at the airport, saying he wouldn't deplane unless Gale was there.

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