Radiation Therapy Overview
Radiation therapy is a procedure that uses high-energy particles to damage or destroy cancer cells, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Other names for the treatment include radiotherapy, irradiation, or x-ray therapy. Radiation therapy can be administered alone or with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy.
What is a Linear Accelerator?
Linear accelerators are complex medical instruments used for standard radiation therapy. The devices are designed to deliver enough radiation to a tumor to eliminate it while minimizing the amount of damage to healthy tissues. Because radiation from linear accelerators is so concentrated and intense, accuracy of the instrument is extremely important.
In addition for being used for standard radiation therapy, some linear accelerators made by Varian Medical Systems were redesigned so they could perform stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS), a procedure designed to target small tumors and other anomalies in the brain or spinal cord. Unfortunately, the difficulty of operating the retrofitted devices in this capacity, along with computer errors, have led to severe, and in some cases fatal, radiation overdoses.
Radiation Overdoses Caused by Operator Error, Computer Malfunctions
On Jan. 23, 2010, the New York Times published an article titled “Radiation Offers New Cures, and Ways to Do Harm” which described the plight of 2 patients who sustained horrific injuries after undergoing treatment with a linear accelerator.
The article cited 1264 ‘operator errors’ made by doctors, physicists, programmers, ancillary medical professionals, and support staff who brought the wrong patients for linear accelerator treatment.
The article also described computer errors in the complex machinery. The case of Scott Jerome-Parks, who suffered a severe radiation overdose and later died after being treated with a varian linear accelerator, illustrates how serious errors can be made:
“Tasked with carrying out [the treatment] plan was Nina Kalach, a medical physicist. In the world of radiotherapy, medical physicists play a vital role in patient safety — checking the calibration of machines, ensuring that the computer delivers the correct dose to the proper location, as well as assuming other safety tasks.”
On the morning of March 14, Kalach revised the patient’s treatment plan using Varian software. Shortly thereafter a problem arose, according to the article.
“…as Ms. Kalach was trying to save her work, the computer began seizing up, displaying an error message. The hospital would later say that similar system crashes ‘are not uncommon with the Varian software, and these issues have been communicated to Varian on numerous occasions.’ An error message asked Ms. Kalach if she wanted to save her changes before the program aborted. She answered yes.”
Unfortunately, Ms. Kalach was not aware that the computer had not saved her revised treatment instructions. As a result, Mr. Jerome-Parks received a massive overdose of radiation.
A subsequent investigation revealed a problem with the Varian software that powered the linear accelerator. When the computer kept crashing, Kalach, unaware that her instructions for the collimator had not been saved, proceeded as though the problem had been fixed.
“We were just stunned that a company could make technology that could administer that amount of radiation — that extreme amount of radiation — without some fail-safe mechanism,” said Ms. Weir-Bryan, Mr. Jerome-Parks’s friend from Toronto. “It’s always something we keep harkening back to: How could this happen? What accountability do these companies have to create something safe?”
The software malfunction was just one among many similar technical errors associated with the linear accelerators. In fact, more than 50% of errors cited in the Times article were related to programming the instrument.
However, there were also disturbingly large numbers of operator errors as well. In 174 cases, the wrong location was treated or even the wrong patient was treated. In 66 cases, staffing shortages or miscommunications resulted in treatment errors.
Radiation Poisoning Symptoms
According to the MedicinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, symptoms of radiation sickness include:
- Bleeding from the nose, mouth, gums, and rectum
- Bloody stool
- Hair loss
- Inflammation of exposed areas (redness, tenderness, swelling, bleeding)
- Mouth ulcers
- Nausea and vomiting
- Open sores on the skin
- Skin burns (redness, blistering)
- Sloughing of skin
- Ulcers in the esophagus, stomach or intestines
- Vomiting blood
Do I Have a Radiation Overdose Class Action Lawsuit?
The Medical Device Litigation Group at our law firm is an experienced team of trial lawyers that focus on the representation of plaintiffs in Radiation Treatment Lawsuits. We are handling individual litigation nationwide and currently accepting new radiation poisoning cases in all 50 states.
Free Confidential Case Evaluation: Again, if you or a loved one suffered an overdose after undergoing radiation therapy, you should contact our law firm immediately. You may be entitled to compensation by filing a class action suit and our lawyers can help.