It’s been 35 years since the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. A complicated series of events led to explosions and a fire that burned for days at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, during which nuclear fallout rained over Ukraine and nearby Belarus.
April 26, 1986, started off like any other day for Alla Shapiro. The pediatrician, then 32 years old, was at work in the Pediatric Hematology Unit at the Children’s Hospital in Kiev, Ukraine. But everything changed when she learned that an explosion had occurred 80 miles north at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, just outside the city of Pripyat. In the hours that followed, hundreds of children arrived at the hospital by bus seeking treatment.
As a front-line worker, it was the first time that Shapiro and her colleagues were faced with treating patients during a disaster of Chernobyl’s magnitude. Unfortunately, the Soviet government didn’t have any nuclear disaster protocols in place, and basic supplies were severely limited, leaving medical professionals to improvise and adapt. In the days and weeks that followed, Shapiro discovered that the government was misleading the public about its handling of the explosion, which was caused by a flawed reactor design, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Shapiro wrote a book about her experiences titled Doctor on Call: Chernobyl Responder, Jewish Refugee, Radiation Expert. She is now a consultant on the effects of radiation on human health. In an interview with Smithsonian, Shapiro describes the flood of children from Pripyat coming into her hospital coughing on radioactive dust, and the measures the staff took to care for them.
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