Kharkiv Hospital for Radiation Protection annually inspects 95,000 people who suffered from the Chernobyl Disaster from Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In 2019, the hospital was repaired for the first time in 25 years using the European Investment Bank’s loans and regional budget financing. The operating room can now carry out two operations simultaneously, and the resuscitation unit is one of the best in Kharkiv region.
At first, nothing is felt. Then, after a few hours, the nausea and diarrhoea begin. Tis is followed by a headache, a rise in temperature, a heavy feeling in the hands and legs, a weakening in the body and a feeling of fatigue. Burns appear on the skin. Initially, it looks like sunburn and so doesn’t seem alarming. Indeed, although the previous feelings of disorientation and impaired co-ordination remain, there seems to be an improvement in the victim’s condition. This deceptive sense of recovery can last from a couple of days to weeks, depending on the level of radiation to which the victim has been exposed. The body’s bone marrow begins to decrease. After this, there is a rise in temperature once more, this time to around 41 degrees. As this happens, the supply of blood cells starts to deplete in the victim and their hair begins to fall out, clumps of it left on the pillow. A metallic taste appears in their mouth. This is a sign of bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract…
These were the symptoms of the liquidators who were involved in clean-up following the accident at Chernobyl’s nuclear plant. They were diagnosed with acute radiation sickness in the first few weeks after they had been exposed to high doses of radiation. Out of the liquidators, 28 died shortly after the disaster – a further 106 lived on, their survival completely down to the innovative medical efforts of doctors who had never before encountered such challenges and crises in their practice.
In March 1986, Anna Hubaryeva, an oncologist at the National Cancer Institute of Ukraine, was on the medical team treating the first victims to arrive from the disaster zone. However, Hubaryeva does not regard her work as heroic: ‘There were 28 nurses and I think around 9 doctors. Out of all of them, there are three of us alive today. We found out only by chance that we were also being exposed to the radiation during our work. Every morning, their radiation levels would be measured by dosimeters. Then one day, the head of our team went up to check something on one of the dosimeters and started to scream … It turned out that we had been exposed to high levels of radiation as we were working. We were never given the status of being liquidators of the disaster, nor should we – the real heroes were those who were on the ground after the accident, cleaning it up.’
It was the selfless work of the doctors which saved the liquidators then and continues to do so to this day. It is important to note the long-term effects of irradiation, which include a higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer, as well as a weakened immune system. Even the common flu, pneumonia or meningitis can prove fatal to those affected.
Kharkiv’s medical dispensary, which specialises in the radiation safety of the local population, is one of the institutions which carries out yearly checks on the state of 95, 000 individuals who were originally from Chernobyl and now live in the Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. During Soviet times, this hospital was modern, well equipped and important throughout the USSR for its work. However, during the 1990s, the building fell into disrepair and the medical equipment grew faulty. From the time of its installation, medical technology has advanced in leaps and bounds. But not here.
In 2015, members of a civilian organisation under the name of ‘The Chernobyl Union’ began the renovation of the institution. In 2019, for the first time in 25 years, the dispensary was thoroughly updated and refurbished with the financial help of the European Investment Bank as well as funds from the regional budget. On top of this, a new wing has been added to the hospital, purpose built to house operating theatres and wards for rehabilitation and recovery.
Taron Tunyan, a liquidator and now deputy-head of Kharkiv’s civilian organisation ‘The Union of Chernobyl’, spoke about his experiences during and after the tragedy: ‘I was serving in Kharkiv, in the regiment which specialised in investigating chemical radiation. The alarm was raised at our base around three hours after the explosion at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl. Over the course of a day, we were getting the cars and uniforms ready. I had about a week left until my service was over. My commander came over and said to me: ‘This is your last task and then you are free to go.’ Late that evening, we left for the Ivankivski area of the Kyiv region. Our squadron arrived there on the 27th of April. I was the most senior in the military vehicle which took us there – it specialised in chemical investigations. We were told to get dressed in gas masks and chemical protective clothing. I can still see the scene clearly now: whilst we were getting dressed, I noticed a cat which was trying to run across our path. But half-way through, it dropped to the ground, dead. I realised then that something bad was going to happen. We weren’t told where we were going or what had happened.’
The team in which Taron served was deployed near the village of Kopachi, a couple of kilometres away from Chernobyl. The tall plume of fire raging at the plant and the helicopters which were circling around it, were visible even from there. Later, the team was moved slightly further away, to the village of Leliv.
‘We were given pocket-sized dosimeters which looked like kaleidoscopes – they could measure up to 25 roentgens and the heftier portable ones could measure up to 1, 200 roentgens. Our job was to count the radiation in and around the plant’s fourth power unit. When we first got on to the site, the small dosimeters were going crazy. We couldn’t stay there for much longer than a few minutes. The larger dosimeters also went off the scale at certain points in the fourth power unity. After three days, the little dosimeters were taken away, with the explanation that they were broken. Every evening, us soldiers would get a special card with the amount of radiation we had been exposed to that day written on it – 1.5, 2 roentgens. Obviously, the real dose was tens of times more than what was written. We would also clean through with spades what the helicopters had thrown on to the fire in order to extinguish it: sand, lead and so on. The workers were taken to and from the plant in military vehicles. They would work in three eight-hour shifts – the liquidators’ work went on around the clock. For some time, our team also helped to evacuate the locals.’
The liquidators experienced the symptoms from the first seconds of their arrival: the metallic taste in their mouth, nausea and vomiting, skin peeling off and head splitting migraines. Taron Tunyan still lives with the last of these four to this day and requires constant medical care like the rest of those involved in the accident.
‘The locals and workers at the plant would often treat us to alcohol’, says Taron. ‘There were rumours that this would help against radiation. We would drink 50 g of vodka each and then some cognac and wine before our meals, as if we were taking medicine. Now they say that this sort of treatment doesn’t work. But I think that what we did was for the best. Because some of the soldiers would drink milk without knowing that it absorbed the radiation. This was much worse than drinking alcohol. We knew almost nothing about radiation in a medical sense. How would we, when we were all around 19 or 20? The only thing we were told was to always walk around in our gas masks. We would sleep in our respirators. Every day, after work, we would change them and the ones which had been used would be burnt. We went about our work like this in Chernobyl until the 20th of May. After this, we were examined in the Institute of Medical Radiology. A lot of the boys ended up straight in Kharkiv’s Military Hospital. Others were given passes which allowed them to live in collectives. The doctors were forbidden to diagnose anyone with radiation sickness. And so I went home, back to Armenia.’
Life After the Accident
Towards the end of the summer in 1986, Taron Tunyan began to experience serious health problems as a result of the accident and was admitted as an in-patient to monitor his condition. But within two years, in December 1988, Armenia was devastated by the Spitak earthquake. 25, 000 were killed and a large number of people were left homeless. The small town where Taron lived was situated only a short distance from Spitak. Life became extremely difficult after buildings were destroyed and gas, electricity and water were cut off. And then, 10 days after the earthquake, Taron’s first son was born.
‘In the 90s, normal life had stopped, and the USSR was crumbling. I already had two children and needed to look after my family, but ways of making money were scarce. So we decided to move to Ukraine and we settled in Kharkiv in 1994. Our third child was born here – a boy. I’ve now lived half my life in Kharkiv. I started up a business here’, explains Taron.
Two times a year, Taron has to go through several weeks of treatment at Kharkiv’s dispensary. Without this, Taron isn’t able to live or work properly.
From its very foundation, Kharkiv’s dispensary was an important medical institute. In its early days, it was the hospital in which all the regional committee members of the Communist Party were treated. Then, after the fall of the USSR, its focus was relocated to the nursing of those affected by Chernobyl.
‘I wanted to help in some way and remember the good old times, when this was one of the best medical institutes in the whole country’, Taron says. ‘The doctors are wonderful here and always give special care to the victims of Chernobyl. We are always provided with medicine and healthy meals. But the building itself was neglected.’
In 2015, the Early Recovering Programme began in Ukraine, a result of the work of the European Investment Bank alongside the EU and the Ukrainian government. The programme will provide 200 million euros to Ukraine in the form of long-term loans with very low interest rates – the money will go towards the refurbishment of schools, hospitals and social infrastructure in the areas of the country which has taken in the largest numbers of internal refugees from the east of Ukraine. The Kharkiv region has the third largest number of internal refugees after the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – there are nearly 130, 000 of them.
‘I go to Kharkiv’s regional state administration from time to time on various business and on one particular occasion, I happened to see a list of hospitals, which were to receive financial help through this programme. I couldn’t find our dispensary on the list. So, I turned to the head of the administration and started to lobby for an answer to this problem’, says Taron.
In 2018, the dispensary received financial help from the European Investment Bank as well as the regional budget, and so the renovation of the hospital began. With the modernisation of the building nearly complete, the dispensary was opened again on the 20th of March. In the ward designated for operations, it is now possible to conduct two simultaneously. The section for rehabilitation is one of the best in the region.
Most Importantly – Remembrance
‘HBO’s series Chernobyl prompted a huge response in connection to the nuclear disaster. Of all the creative representations of the accident, it was the most accurate. The film reminded me of everything that happened and forced me once more to think about the events. My fellow soldiers and I started to call one another up and remember it together. It’s good that people are watching the film, talking about it and showing their children. That’s how it should be. We should never forget history’, remarks Taron firmly.
Taron’s brothers run a business which builds solar panels. Once, they were offered the chance to install a complex of the panels in the exclusion zone, not far from Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant. They refused categorically. Taron explains that, ‘To transport the workers to the exclusion zone means to put their health at risk. I would never do this. This attitude is wrong. You should never put someone else in danger like that. But sometimes I think about going back, to look at Chernobyl. To remember.’
By Samira Abbasova