Saturday, October 09, 1999

Radiation controversy outlasts lawsuit

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nestled in an old corner of the University Hospital grounds stands a sad little courtyard with a single tree, three park benches and two picnic tables that once was called a “therapeutic garden.”

        Patients haven't used this place in years. An oval asphalt walkway is crumbled and broken. The sign that calls this spot a garden is rusted and broken in half. There isn't a flower to be seen.

        These days, employees use the courtyard as a place to catch a smoke or sometimes eat their lunch.

        Yet this out-of-the-way place plays a central role in a controversial chapter of Cincinnati's medical history that was a big part of a national re-examination of the things America did to its own people during the Cold War.

        This is the place where a decades-long trail of investigations, hearings and lawsuits about the University of Cincinnati's total-body irradiation (TBI) experiments comes to a widely unsatisfying end.

        This week, University Hospital crews completed a concrete pedestal to display a 26-inch square bronze memorial plaque bearing the names of 70 people under the following words:

        “In Memoriam, Cancer Patients Radiation Effects Study, 1960-1972.”

        This plaque was a hard-fought outcome of a bitter court fight that started in 1994 and was settled five years later, in May. This is a plaque that UC never wanted to install, yet it fails to satisfy the families involved.

        Despite the poor condition of the courtyard, the location is significant. The patients in the experiments got their radiation doses in a building next to this courtyard, a building now called Pavilion H.

        There, in the basement of the old General Hospital, is where University of Cincinnati researchers conducted an 11-year Cold War radiation experiment involving more than 90 cancer patients.

        The patients were told that the whole-body and partial-body radiation doses they got

        from the cobalt-60 machine would help relieve their pain. It was years later that their families learned their loved ones were part of military-sponsored study designed to gather information on how an atomic attack might affect battlefield troops.

        Documents made public even before the lawsuit was filed show that patients in the study stayed in wards separated from other cancer patients. They were watched for nausea after treatment. They were given an array of mental functioning tests intended to predict how radiation exposure would affect the combat readiness of military troops.

        Many reports and studies were produced about the research team's largely unsuccessful hunt for a “biological dosimeter,” a way of using blood or urine samples to measure the amount of radiation a person might have received.

        But the effects of the radiation on cancer tumors and pain were detailed primarily in one study, issued in 1973 after the project was shut down.

        The lawsuit was filed after the identities of many of the research subjects were made public. Many of those names were revealed by an Enquirer investigation.

        Beyond the lawsuit, the total body irradiation project became the subject of a congressional subcommittee hearing in Cincinnati.

        Both sides agreed that the fight would have taken as many as 10 years to reach trial, and nobody wanted that. Even so, the settlement details took more than a year to work out.

        The final deal split $3,594,440 among the families and their lawyers. Most of the families will receive about $50,000 each.

        Several families that played various leading roles in pursuing the case also will share about $66,000 in special recognition awards.

        But some of the families feel no sense of closure.

        Herbert Varin, whose mother Nina Cline was a research subject, was in his early 20s when he watched his mother come home from treatments that doctors said would soothe the pain she felt from ovarian cancer.

        “I remember how she said for weeks it seemed like her body was on fire,” Mr. Varin said.

        To him, the plaque was a way to honor the people who became unwitting casualties of the Cold War — except that isn't what the plaque says.

        Mr. Varin was annoyed that the original proposal called for listing the patients only by their initials. He remains annoyed that the plaque says extremely little about the experiments and will be placed in a spot few people will ever see.

        The location angered some relatives.

        “If I had known about the location, I never would have signed the settle ment papers,” said Doris Baker, great-granddaughter of research subject Gertrude Newell.

        “This was about them doing the right thing by my great-grandmother. I didn't go this far for them to put her in somebody's back yard. I wanted everybody to see what they did to her and these other people.”

        Even though they agreed to the settlement terms, the researchers and institutions involved do not admit any wrongdoing. All along, they have been concerned that the plaque would be misinterpreted as an admission of guilt.

        In the Cincinnati experiments, Dr. Eugene Saenger was the lead researcher. A dozen other UC researchers involved in the experiments were named as defendants, along with two military project officers, the city of Cincinnati and UC.

        To the defendants, vast amounts of dispute remain about the lawsuit's allegations, including how much, if any, harm was caused. In fact, they argued throughout the case that the radiation was intended to help reduce pain.

        They contend that beneficial effects were achieved, even though research papers detail how several patients suffered life-threatening declines in their white blood cell counts. At higher doses, this effect was so strong that some patients required bone marrow transplants, a highly experimental treatment at the time.

        Critics claimed that the deaths of at least 20 patients were hastened by the experiments.

        In one research paper years ago, Dr. Saenger himself wrote that the radiation exposure may have contributed to at least eight deaths. But he recanted that statement at a congressional subcommittee hearing in Cincinnati in April 1994, contending instead that all the patients died as a result of their underlying cancer.

        The researchers also point out that several patients lived several years after the experiments stopped and that one subject from the experiments survives to this day — Donna White Christy, who was treated as a child for Ewing's sarcoma, a type of bone cancer.

        For her, the radiation was considered a cure. Critics claimed her disease was unlike those most of the adults in the experiment had.

        The level of consent obtained from patients also remained in dispute. According to documents, written consent forms were not used until 1965. Consent forms detailing the risks of bone-marrow transplants were used only in the late years of the study, and none of the forms said the patients faced potentially fatal risks.

        The families claimed their loved ones never knew they were part of a military-sponsored study. But the doctors argued that the patients in the early years gave proper oral consent in accordance with normal practices of the times, and then signed written consents in later years as rules about medical experiments evolved.

        The researchers contended that it was unfair to judge a 1960s-era experiment according to 1990s standards.

Chronology of radiation study
Plaque doesn't end pain of UC radiation case

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