Radiation therapy is a common treatment for a large range of cancers and has been responsible for saving, or at least extending, many peoples’ lives. However, the basic premise of radiation therapy involves targeting and killing cancerous cells in one’s body. And while properly administered radiation therapy can save lives, when hospitals and doctors administer too much radiation it can result in negative effects for the treating patient.
Overdoses of radiation is becoming more and more widespread amongst cancer patients. A recent report of Evanston’s Northshore University HealthSystem, a Chicago-area hospital, provided one such example. A 50 year-old mother of three was administered dangerously high doses of radiation when the hospital staff made radiology errors involving the administration of her radiation doses. The young Illinois resident went from an active, vibrant person pre-radiation to a virtual invalid post-radiation and now resides in an Illinois nursing home.
This woman was just one of three oncology patients who received an overdose of radiation at Evanston Hospital. All three instances of the radiation errors were allegedly the result of faulty linear particle accelerators. These accelerators are used to focus the radiation on the cancerous cells and are commonly used for stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS).
SRS is a type of radiation that uses such high power beams of radiation that the therapy is so intense that it is now being referred to as “surgery”. SRS is one of the fastest growing types of radiation therapies, particularly for those patients suffering from brain cancer. Radiosurgery is appealing to brain cancer patients as an alternative to invasive surgery; the patient would undergo the radiation treatment as an outpatient.
However, because of the high intensity of the beam, accuracy in administering the radiation therapy is vital. If the beam misses the targeted cancer cells and instead is focused on healthy brain cells, then serious damage can occur, including possible brain injury, as evidenced by the patient at Evanston Hospital.
Likewise, due to the highly dangerous nature of SRS, the equipment administering the radiation, namely the linear particle accelerator, should contain a device that prevents radiation from leaking outside of the intended area. However, according to the ongoing investigation at Evanston Hospital, it appears possible that its linear particle accelerator lacked certain safety features that might have prevented the radiation to spill outside the machine’s heavy cone attachment that was meant to be channeling the radiation to the correct area of the brain.
It is hard to say how common these equipment failures are because they are not often documented. The American Society for Radiation Oncology has called for the establishment of a database for the reporting of radiation errors involving linear accelerators. To date, this has not yet been accomplished.
However, there are a number of reports of SRS systems manufactured by Varian and its German partner, Brainlab, Inc. in connection with radiology errors and radiation overdoses. At least one product liability lawsuit has been filed in Cook County, Illinois related to the alleged design product defects of the Novalis linear accelerator for the stereotactic system. It will be interesting to see whether these types of medical product liability cases continue to be filed nationwide, or whether these types of radiation errors are isolated events.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois radiation errors and Illinois product defect matters for over 35 years in and around Cook County, including Bridgeport, Evanston, Melrose Park and Highland Park.
Walt Bogdanich & Kristina Rebelo. “A Pinpoint Beam Strays Invisibly, Harming Instead of Healing.” The New York Times. December 28, 2010.
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