A fix for dangerous CT scans
On July 4, 2009, my life changed forever. While the rest of the nation celebrated Independence Day, my world tilted on its axis. The right side of my body began an accelerated journey toward paralysis, and my words wouldn’t come out.
I was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where a CT brain perfusion scan revealed I’d had a stroke.
I vividly recall entering the CT machine that first day, sliding on a narrow table under the big halo of modern medical technology. Its sophisticated electronics whirled, a tsunami of radiation penetrating my head to produce images of my brain. Over the course of a twoweek hospitalization, Cedars physicians had me undergo two more CT brain perfusion scans as well as a number of additional CT scans.
But as it turned out, the machine that was meant to diagnose me and guide my treatment was also exposing me to excessive levels of radiation capable of causing lethal harm.
Apparently, the scanner had been set improperly, so each CT brain perfusion scan bombarded my head with at least eight times the allowable dose of radiation. Within days of my final scan at Cedars — after I had been transferred to a rehabilitation center to focus on my recovery — my hair began falling out in a bizarre, donutshaped band from temple to temple. It matched the CT’s target zone.
Shocked and frightened, I called my doctors, but no one could explain what was happening to me.
This began a troubling and emotionally taxing quest for the truth. As the first patient to report side effects from this massive radiation overdose, the California Department of Health referred to me as “Patient 1.” My complaints helped bring a major hospital and medical device problem to light and launch several local, state and federal investigations.
I soon learned I was not alone. The various investigations determined that more than 330 patients at Cedars-Sinai and several other California hospitals had also suffered radiation overdoses from CT brain perfusion scans.
Since then I have provided testimony to the U.S. Congress, and I have made repeated trips to the state Capitol to speak on behalf of SB 1237, a bill by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) that could set a national precedent and act as an important deterrent against future CT radiation mishaps.
Currently, there are no safety protocols in place to measure and record the radiation doses being administered to patients who receive CT scans. SB 1237 requires that doses be recorded in a patient’s medical records, so that mistakes will be more easily detected and addressed. The bill also requires that hospitals inform patients and their doctors when they are subject to radiation overdoses.
I was kept in the dark for weeks about the true nature of my radiation overdosing, and it took months to get my full medical records. I learned more about what happened to me by reading the Los Angeles Times than from Cedars — hardly the level of care and communication one expects from a world-class hospital.
Conservative estimates are that I suffered the equivalent of more than 50,000 chest X-rays to my brain. I shudder to think what that means for my long-term health, and I live with the constant fear that with every headache, every instance of blurry vision or any time I stumble and lose my balance, I have developed a brain tumor or some other form of cancer caused by massive radiation exposure.
No one should have to go through this. My hope is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not taken a position on SB 1237, will do the right thing and sign it into law. Though it is too late to benefit me and the other patients who were recklessly overdosed, the governor can make protecting people from careless medical radiation overdoses part of his legacy.
Even if Schwarzenegger does take action, there is still more that should be done. CT scanners are manufactured by recognizable multinational corporations, yet they lack safety protocols and systems to shut them down if the radiation doses get too high. It is frightening and unconscionable to me that my car, which beeps if a bumper gets too close to the curb or another car, has a more sophisticated warning system than a machine capable of producing potentially lethal levels of radiation.