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Soldiers of the apocalypse

When the fallout starts, do you trust your doctor or your worst nightmares?

March 27, 2011|By Amy Wilentz

I tend to use disaster preparation the way some people use Valium. I find having the right things on hand calms the nerves. I try to be ultra-rational about what might be needed. Unfortunately, I live in Los Angeles, so there's a lot to think about. And since Japan's triple disaster, there's even more to imagine and prevent.

Before last week, my doctor had never been forced to play a role in my apocalyptic preparations. But when I learned that a plume of radioactivity from the destroyed Japanese nuclear reactors would soon reach Southern California, I started torturing him, via e-mail. And I know how to pester. I wanted prescriptions for potassium iodide for all members of my household, not so much because of the approaching plume but because I realized that if the San Onofre or El Diablo nuclear plants suffered a similar event — that is, a big earthquake , not unknown in Southern California — we might need it. Also, I have to admit, I do believe that if one is prepared for the worst, possibly the worst will not happen: Like carrying an umbrella in case it rains.

My doctor and I, however, do not see eye to eye on this philosophy (most doctors don't), nor on the more pressing issue of potassium iodide. "I don't think that's a good idea, Amy," he wrote to me, in an e-mail. "Jonathan Fielding, the Director of the Public Health Dept has specifically recommended against this, as there's no evidence of need and currently, no likely need for iodide." He sent me the URL for Fielding's directive.

In it, Fielding said the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, along with other local, state and federal agencies, would inform us when we needed iodide, and it was not now.

Uh-hunh.

However, we should be prepared for emergencies, with water, food, cash, toiletries, tools and prescription medications on hand. Basically, everything but potassium iodide, apparently.

My doctor was also worried that I would take the potassium iodide prematurely — that's how much of a nutbag he thinks I am.

I reassured him on this point. I also told him that I was skeptical about Fielding's directive. "Don't forget," I wrote, "in 2001, building officials told people not to panic and that they should remain in the second tower."

The poor man wrote back: "Your point is a good one."

I was wearing him down. Probably he had other, more immediate things to deal with on this day, as doctors tend to do.

"So let's keep an eye on developments," he continued, "and if there are other questions or if the situation changes, we can address this again." He added that he would get me my potassium iodide as soon as he got it for his own family.

Not so fast, doctor! This battle's not over.

Sure, I wrote back, "but will you panic SOON enough? Doctors have a notorious cool in the face of emergency." Under the subject heading "oh just prescribe it!" I sent him warnings about the plume from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna, which offered no information about actual radiation levels but did show the probable movements and dispersal of the radioactive cloud.

By now, he was broken.

"Oh okay," was the dejected subject heading of his reply e-mail. His tone was exhausted but tolerant, the tone you take with a child in a tantrum or a severely mentally ill patient. "I think at this point," he wrote, "it would be better for you to have it and not have to worry about that aspect of this situation."

As my son used to say when he was a toddler: "I winned."

I went over to my pharmacy, where I had already joined the list the day before of people waiting for KI. I picked up my subscription, $93 total, not covered. And now, in my medicine cabinet, lined up side by side, are three little orange soldiers of the apocalypse waiting for doom — and I hope, like all objects of magical thinking, somehow forestalling it.

Amy Wilentz is the author of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger."

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