Thursday, June 7, 2007
I just finished watching a really moving film called Chernobyl Heart. I stumbled upon it randomly a few months ago upon doing a search at the Duke library. The film has been sitting in my hard drive for ages, but since I don’t have TV here in the 'Burgh, I finally got around to watching it tonight.
Chernobyl Heart is an Academy Award-winning documentary from HBO that takes a look at children born after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, many of whom have a deteriorated heart condition known colloquially as – you guessed it – “Chernobyl heart.” The title also refers to the generosity of volunteers at Chernobyl Children’s Project International who dedicate their lives to caring for the sick kids.
The children (mostly Belorussian) are suffering in unimaginable ways as a result of radioactive contamination. In addition to congenital heart defects, many are born with their brains on the outside of their skulls, with massive tumors, or with unusual genetic disorders. Needless to say, it was a difficult film to watch.
In Belarus, heart problems in children born post-Chernobyl have increased dramatically, with other health problems increasing as well. One doctor at a hospital in southern Belarus claimed that only 15 to 20% of babies are born healthy. (The country as a whole remains 99% contaminated.)
Much of the documentary was shot inside institutions with dreary names such as “The Abandoned Children’s Home” or “The Minsk Mental Hospital,” where sick kids have been permanently forsaken by their parents. (Although such an act seems unthinkable by American standards, I find it almost understandable in these cases. The children in Chernobyl Heart are so severely handicapped that caring for one would require an enormous supply of money, and in an economically destitute region such as Belarus, cash is in very short supply. Also, providing such a child with the proper medical care would require an expertise that most Belorussians simply do not have; in fact, many of the children would not be in the conditions they are in had the right care been provided immediately after birth, like draining fluid from the brain.)
I cannot imagine what it must be like to work in such an environment as the "Abandoned Children's Home" on a regular basis. The workers that the filmmaker interviewed appeared to carry incredible emotional burdens as a result of their jobs.
One moment of positivity came at the end of the film. An American doctor is shown performing heart surgery on a little girl that had been previously deemed "inoperable" by Belorussian medical experts. When the American surgeon tells the girl's parents that the surgery was successful - that the hole in her heart had been sealed - they begin to cry and overwhelm the doctor with their gratitude. Unfortunately, only about 300 Belorussian children per year have the opportunity to get such a surgery, and the rest usually die within 2-5 years.
A general conclusion that the film makes early on is that the victims of Chernobyl were not those who were adults in 1986, but those who were very young at the time of the accident, or still in the womb, or continue to be born in contaminated areas. I was born on January 12, 1986, just a few months before the Chernobyl accident. I was an infant when it happened. Many of those who were affected by Chernobyl are exactly my age. Had circumstances been different - had I been born in Belarus or Ukraine - I may have suffered from heart disease, or thyroid cancer, or leukemia... just like the kids featured in this movie. What a disturbing thought.
If you don't have an opportunity to see Chernobyl Heart, there is an extremely well-done photo-essay on the same subject on the web. You can view it here. It is produced by "Magnum In Motion," a company that does fabulous work in general. I highly recommend it.