To mark this week's 25th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Radio Rookies is rebroadcasting Irina Sverzhanovskaya's story about the aftermath of the accident in her own life.
Irina was born in Belarus, the country that bore the brunt of the radiation fallout and her family moved to the Bronx to escape the contamination. For years she and her family have attributed many of their health problems to the radiation, but as Irina digs deeper she finds that is not the case. (ORIGINAL AIR DATE: October 7, 2009)
It's been almost 25 years since the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. But some people from that part of the world still fear the radiation is poisoning them. Rookie Reporter Irina Sverzhanovskaya lives in the Bronx now, but she comes from Belarus, where more than 60 percent of the radiation landed. And even though she wasn't born until 6 years after the disaster, her family suspects Chernobyl made her ill.
(walking to the medicine cabinet)
NARRATION: It's my morning commute -- 5:45 AM from my room to the medicine cabinet.
(opening medicine cabinet)
NARRATION: I don't feel like walking!
IRINA: This is my first medicine.
NARRATION: I take a lot of pills.
IRINA: This is Entonise.
NARRATION: So many that I don't know all the names.
IRINA: This is Retex.
NARRATION: They're supposed to make my thyroid work so my hormones stay in balance.
IRINA: This is Supremondopholous.
NARRATION: If I don't take them I get hungry--a lot--OVER-hungry. I'm not joking!
IRINA: And that's it, yeah.
NARRATION: I was born in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
(Russian radio fades in)
NARRATION: After Chernobyl happened my country got the most radiation. When I was 5, we moved to New York City. But at home the Russian radio station is still always on, and my mom thinks the radiation is still inside our bodies.
MOM: Chernobyl it is big tragedy for...
NARRATION: So when anyone in my family gets really sick she blames the radiation.
MOM: Chernobyl will affect people for many, many, many, many years.
NARRATION: My parents say--
NARRATION: My health problems are because of the radiation too.
DAD: It's a dark spot in our biography. Many people embarrassed talking about it.
NARRATION: Chernobyl is one of the reasons we left Belarus, but I have to yell at my parents to get them to tell me anything about it.
(Irina and Dad arguing)
NARRATION: My sister, Dasha, is afraid if her friends knew, they'd be critical.
DASHA: They kind of wouldn't get it and be like, "Oh my god you got radiated! OHHHH! AHHHHH!" Like that.
IRINA: They would feel sorry for you.
DASHA: Why would I want people to be sorry for me?
IRINA: (sucking teeth)
NARRATION: I didn't think about Chernobyl much until middle school, when I went back to my country for a visit. I saw things with my own two eyes--some people with deformities, kids who had no hair and that was just walking to a restaurant. Then I was diagnosed with my own health problems--and that's when I started to see myself as a victim. But I didn't have anybody to talk to about it.
(school ambiance fades in)
NARRATION: At school people looked at me like I'm weird.
IRINA: Ms. Ching, I wouldn't break your door!
NARRATION: So I started going to see Ms. Ching during lunch.
IRINA: How often do I come to see you?
NARRATION: She's my school counselor.
MS. CHING: Um, do I have to say the truth?
MS. CHING: Uh, everyday Irina, you see me.
NARRATION: Ms. Ching tries to make me feel okay about being different.
MS. CHING: We talk about personal things, we talk about academics, we talk about medical things. We talk about everything.
NARRATION: After school, I started spending most of my free time researching about Chernobyl. I talked to my teacher from the Ukraine about it and went to the library and filled my bag with books. They were really heavy. But I finally felt like I fit in somewhere.
UN SPEAKER: The consequences of one of the world's worst technological catastrophes...
NARRATION: I even got invited to go to a United Nations Conference.
UN SPEAKER: The Chernobyl disaster still harmfully affects the life of people in the region.
NARRATION: Oh my god! The more educated I got, the more confused I got. Some people think like my mom and say that the radiation is always going to affect us. But other people make it seem like it's not a big deal anymore. I decided to talk to an expert on radiation and thyroid problems.
IRINA: Could you tell me your name please?
DR. BRANOVAN: My name is Daniel Igor Branovan and I'm also an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.
NARRATION: I wanted to ask him for his autograph. But first, I told him about how I was a victim of Chernobyl.
IRINA: I wasn't born when Chernobyl happened. I was born in 1992 but I still have thyroid problems. Do you think that's because of Chernobyl?
DR. BRANOVAN: I think most likely not.
NARRATION: I was like, you gotta be kidding me.
DR. BRANOVAN: Since you were born six years later, all the radioactive iodine was certainly gone by then. So more likely there was some thyroid problems in your family. It may be related to the fact that there is not enough iodine in the diet of people in Belarus, therefore, a lot of people grow up with thyroid problems.
NARRATION: That was like a train hitting my face. So I started looking for some other doctor who would be on my side.
DR. PEREZ-FOSTER: My name is Doctor Rose Marie Perez-Foster, I work in a national disaster and catastrophe center. So we--
IRINA: That's cool.
DR. PEREZ-FOSTER: That's very cool.
NARRATION: Dr. Perez-Foster studies how people react to disasters.
DR. PEREZ-FOSTER: With gas or radiation or germs people cannot see the effects so therefore, the mind makes them very, very, very worried because they're never sure. They say, "Oh! Is the potatoes that I'm eating, does that have radiation, or not?" What surprised me is the effects were more mental than physical.
IRINA: And that's it?
DR. PEREZ-FOSTER: Well, (laughing) that's a big deal.
IRINA: OK. Do you think it's possible that some people were affected by Chernobyl that weren't exposed directly to radiation?
DR. PEREZ-FOSTER: No, I don't. It's radiation that does the damage.
NARRATION: For three years the first thing I told people about myself was that I was a victim of Chernobyl. And now I don't know what to tell them. It was easier to be me when there was a reason I was different.
MS. CHING: Irina, just always be yourself and always learn more and more about who you are as a person.
NARRATION: Ms. Ching gave me a book that told me to be a teenage warrior and to always move on from the past. But it's hard.
IRINA: Do you think that I'm a teenage warrior?
MS. CHING: Yes. (laughing)
NARRATION: I still haven't told my counselor or my mom the truth—that my medical problems have nothing to do with the radiation. Okay, fine! I will.
(elevator ding, museum sounds)
NARRATION: And I'm starting to focus on helping the real victims instead.
IRINA: Alright, it's called, "Chernobyl and its Effects Today."
NARRATION: Last spring, I made a presentation for teenagers at the American Museum of Natural History.
IRINA: Yeah, that's where the nuclear stuff happens. Does anybody have questions?
NARRATION: I even told the security guard at the museum about Chernobyl, and he actually listened to me! So I explained the organization I want to start to help people in Belarus.
IRINA: (laughing) I'm gonna definitely hire you Mister.
SECURITY GUARD: You will?
IRINA: I'm gonna hire you.
SECURITY GUARD: So how long do I have to wait for that to transpire, for that to materialize?
IRINA: Well you know next year I'm graduating high school so by 2010, 2014 I'm gonna finish college.
SECURITY GUARD: 2014?
NARRATION: There are so many things I want to do and so little time.
IRINA: So by 2020 I'm gonna hire you.
NARRATION: Dr. Perez-Foster told me the best way to make a difference is to educate people.
DR. PEREZ-FOSTER: To teach them about radiation effects.
IRINA: Yeah I want to do that. I want to actually charge Russia with, that they haven't paid that much money to Belarus after--
DR. PEREX-FOSTER: (laughing)
IRINA: After what happened, with the Chernobyl, I want to actually do that.
DR. PEREZ-FOSTER: (laughing) You go girl, you go for it.
IRINA: I'm not joking, I'm serious.
For WNYC this is Rookie Reporter, Irina Sverzhanovskaya.
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