Doctors who brave radiation to save patients

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While most doctors wear surgical gowns during operations, some of them must wear a heavy set of lead clothing and put their own life on the line by working under radiation to save patients.

Liu Ya takes off surgical mask to catch a breath after operating an interventional radiology surgery. [Photo by Ran Wen/for China Daily]

Liu Ya takes off surgical mask to catch a breath after operating an interventional radiology surgery. [Photo by Ran Wen/for China Daily]

This set of lead equipment, about 15 kilograms, includes a lead cap, glasses, collar, gloves, apron and even underwear. But the doctors' head, face, calves and arms are unprotected to help them operate easily during the operation.

Liu Ya, a 38-year-old doctor in the Imaging Department at Chongqing Cancer Hospital, is one of them. She needs to put on the whole set of lead clothing with a colleague's help, before finally putting on a surgical gown. The weight of the whole uniform slows down her walk.

"I am so worn out after each operation," Liu said. But usually she can only rest for about 10 minutes, then take a shower and put on a new set of lead clothing to prepare for another surgery.

Mao Mingwei, the director of the Imaging Department, said that wearing lead clothing is necessary for interventional radiology surgery. This type of surgery involves minimally invasive procedures under the guidance of radiographic techniques, which requires doctors to work under radiation.

Depending on the conditions of the patient and his/her blood vessels, the duration of each operation ranges from one to three hours. Since X-ray examination is performed continuously during the procedure, doctors need to wear protective lead clothing all the time.

During the surgery, the protected body parts will take in a radiation dose equivalent to two or three chest X-rays and the unprotected areas equivalent to about 100 chest X-rays.

Mao said there are around 400 interventional surgeries at the hospital each year conducted by three doctors.

Many long-term interventional surgeons have only 3,000 to 4,000 white blood cells, which is lower than the normal threshold of 4,000 to 10,000. That makes these doctors less resistant to viruses and infection than normal healthy people.

Liu and Mao always wear a dosimeter, which automatically records the amount of radiation they take in. They need to hand in the dosimeter to the CDC (Center of Disease Control) every three months to ensure it doesn't exceed the prescribed limits. They are required to have medical examinations organized by the CDC every two years. If their white blood cell count is found to be at an unsafe level, they will be forced to leave their post.

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