“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”

Fun fact! We once thought that infusing water with radium was a great idea.

Okay, so my idea of a fun fact probably differs from that of most, but here we are, discussing radium water. I recently found my audience engrossed as I talked about all of the stupid ways we used radium in the past. One of the most interesting stupid inventions is Radithor.

You’ve never heard of Radithor? Well, sit down because I’m going to fill your brain with so much information about it—more than you ever cared to know, I’m sure. Let’s start with the basics.

What is radium?

Radium is a radioactive element that was discovered by Marie Curie in 1898. Fun fact about Marie Curie: She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes.

Radium releases radiant energy with every nuclear decay. This means that as time passes, the nucleus of the atom breaks down and releases energy that does bad stuff. You should know that it’s taking all of my strength not to dive into the physics behind radioactivity and half-lives. You’re missing out, but you’re welcome.

Long story short-ish, if something is radioactive, it’s not good. Radiation causes ionization of atoms, which results in unwanted chemical reactions in cells. At its worst, it can damage DNA, prompting an increased risk of cancer, genetic mutations, and even death.

Likelihood I’ll turn into the Hulk

At this point you might be thinking, “But Jenn, don’t you work with radiation every day?” Why yes, blog reader, I do. But there are different types of radiation. For example, alpha and beta particles do a lot of harm, while x-rays and gamma rays cause little harm, relatively speaking. So there’s a small chance of me Hulking out any time soon.

That said, it would be irresponsible of me to withhold this: there is no such thing as a safe dose. There’s always a risk when it comes to ionizing radiation. That said, don’t run out screaming the next time your doctor orders an x-ray. Imaging tests are ordered by doctors after weighing the benefits against the risks. X-rays are taken (and should be taken) by licensed professionals trained to limit exposure while maintaining the integrity of a diagnostic image.

Radithor! And a lot of science

Radithor was invented in 1925 by a man named William Bailey. His triple-distilled water enriched with radium salts was advertised as “perpetual sunshine”. Bailey claimed it could cure over 150 diseases. Spoiler: It couldn’t. Each tiny, half-ounce bottle contained one microcurie each of radium-226 and radium-228. The key takeaway here is that Radithor was legitimately poisonous.

Bear with me or skip to the next section. Radium-226 is a product of uranium decay. It has a half-life of 1,600 years (!!!) and emits alpha particles. Radium-228 is a product of thorium decay. It has a half-life of 5.75 years and emits beta particles. Unlike x-rays, which are capable of exiting the body, alpha and beta particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper or aluminum, respectively. This means that they make it about a centimeter into the body and stay there doing very bad things.

What made Radithor so dangerous? Radium-226 and radium-228 decay at a rate of over four million times per second! Each of those four million radiation bursts find something to hit and destroy in the body. That’s a lot of very bad things! What’s worse is that the radiation rate for radium-228 increases by over 10% after a person stops ingesting it. So even after 80 years, a small bottle of Radithor would max out a Geiger counter. I KNOW!

Radithor! And just a little science

Despite its lethality, 400,000 bottles of Radithor were sold over five years. The most notable consumer of this product was Eben Byers. He began drinking Radithor in 1927 after hurting his arm. He quickly upped his intake to three bottles a day after claiming to feel “instantly” better. He believed that it truly helped. Spoiler: It didn’t. He believed it so much that he started sharing Radithor with his friends, girlfriends, and even his horses.

The problem with ingesting radium is that it’s similar to calcium in terms of its orbital outer-shell electron structure. This means that calcium and radium form chemical bonds the same way. Do you see where I’m going with this? When the body finds radium, it will use it, even if what it really needs is calcium. So when Byers’ body demanded material to repair his fractured arm, it found plenty of radium available.

Bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. So as long as there was a regular influx of radium, Byers’ bones used it to make even the most basic of repairs to his skeletal system. I read that his teeth had such a high radiation output that they’d light up a photographic plate on their own—no x-ray machine needed! By 1931, he had consumed 1,400 bottles of Radithor, accumulating roughly three times what’s now considered to be the lethal dose.

Here’s where it gets bad for the 50-something-year-old. It started with aches and pains, and soon his athletic build deteriorated and he dropped down to 92 lbs. His bones were splintering and dissolving. Byers not only suffered from blinding headaches, but he lost most of his teeth as well as most of his entire jaw. Oh, and then there were the holes that formed in his skull from his bones literally disintegrating. Byers died in March 1932, only five years after he started drinking Radithor.

The End?

Despite the trauma endured by Byers, Bailey pushed back, stating that he had drank more Radithor than anyone and never suffered an ill effect. Fortunately the FTC shut him down soon after Byers’ death. But did that stop our ingenue? Yes and no.

Bailey went on to create a radioactive paperweight, “Bioray,” which acted as a miniature sun for people unable to work outdoors. He also sold the “Adrenoray,” a radioactive belt clip and the “Thoronator,” a refillable “health spring” for the home or office that infused tap water with radon gas. Fortunately, none of these newer products proved to be very radioactive.

So there you have it! That’s the story of Radithor. If you’d like to read more about this, and other radiation disasters, I recommend reading “Atomic Accidents“. I’m currently working my way through it; it’s very interesting. I’m not sure why I find this particular story so fascinating though. I’d like to cover other crazy ways we used radioactive products (butter, chocolate, condoms, etc.) so hopefully I’ll get to those in a future post! Thanks for reading.

The Dead Don’t Scare People; People Scare People

There’s no shortage of scareable moments in the morgue. I was unlucky enough to experience one during a recent shift.

Our machine was under repair and we had to use the portable for cases. Once positioned, I am too short to reach the controls on the x-ray tube. A smart x-ray tech would set the technique before positioning the tube, but let’s see how logical you are at 5 am.

As a side note, I should mention my PPE. PPE stands for personal protective equipment and is necessary when working with dead bodies. It includes a gown, two sets of gloves (I like to double up), a cap, a mask, and booties. The booties are important, I promise.

After standing on the tip of my toes and reaching, I decided to stop being lazy and get the foot stool. Conveniently, the stool is located in a separate room: the decomp room. The decomp room is a special room where the stinkiest of cases go. Fortunately, on that morning, no one was in there.

I opened the door and took in the creepiness of the room. It was dark and too quiet. I turned on one of the lights and began to walk across the room to where the foot stool was located. As I did, I heard, “psst”.

Frozen in my tracks, I listened carefully for another “psst”. I looked around the room and checked for life. There’s a bathroom in here, and many of the techs use it when they don’t want to go into the locker room. The bathroom was empty. So I looked behind me to see if someone had poked their head in after me. The door was still closed.

I decided that the smartest thing to do is not stand frozen in the middle of the room so I grabbed the stool and ran. You know that feeling you have when you run up the basement stairs not looking behind you out of fear that you might actually see something? Multiply that by five and that’s how I felt as I ran out of the room.

Safely back in the x-ray room, I laughed at myself for being as afraid as I was. I told my partner how creeped out I was and sufficiently creeped her out with my story. Terror, much like misery, loves company. But I’m a skeptic. Weird things happen around here all the time, and I’m usually the first one to find the rational explanation to ease nerves.

Regardless, this silly event had me rattled. No one was in the room. As far as I know, there isn’t a speaker in there so it’s not like someone could have said it over an intercom. Could it have been outside the room? I ran through all of the possible explanations and came up with nothing.

So with a deep sigh I hung my head in shame and looked down at my feet. Booties.

The PPE booties we wear are made of plastic. As you walk, they make a not-annoying-at-all noise. A noise that’s loud enough to hear down at the other end of the hallway.

Swish-swish, swish-swish, swish-swish, SWISH-SWISH.

The “psst” I heard was actually the “swish-swish” of my own feet.

Boom. Rationalized. Eerie feeling gone. I am an idiot.

My partner wasn’t as quick to accept my completely rational, totally logical founded-in-science explanation. So I walked around the x-ray room rubbing my feet together (swish-swish) while saying “psst psst,” in an effort to prove my theory.

She still doesn’t believe me.

I’m still an idiot.

The Ideal Death

I know that death isn’t something that many people talk about openly. It makes us uncomfortable, and I really don’t understand why the western world is so challenged by mortality.

We’ll talk about fictional deaths—beloved characters in books or TV shows. We’ll talk about political, religious, and/or societal deaths—murders, mass traumas, cover-ups, and so on. We have a deep curiosity with morbidity. How else do you explain the 16 different versions of CSI or the popularity of serial killers in podcasts and documentaries? But when it comes to our own death, that’s rarely discussed.

I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about dying. But I’m a chronic planner, so why wouldn’t I try to Type-A my own death?

I’ve already given a lot of thought about what will happen to my body after I die. After-death planning seems somewhat easier than giving thought to the dying process itself. I recently found myself in a discussion about this very topic with a friend. We were talking about the various ways we didn’t want to die. She later told me about a conversation she had with a friend who described her “ideal death”.

I couldn’t get past that phrasing. My ideal death. It’s not something you hear very often. But it got me thinking about what my ideal death would be. Obviously, if I had it my way, I’d go peacefully in my sleep after every item on my bucket list was checked off, and my family and friends had the closure they needed in order to celebrate my life and not mourn my death.

The chances of that happening, however, are slim. Working at the morgue has made it painfully obvious that death comes when it wants to. It doesn’t care about your schedule. Didn’t change your underwear today? Finally got tickets to Hamilton? Death doesn’t give a fuck.

It’s random. It’s inconvenient. It’s painful as hell. Not necessarily for you (although maybe) but definitely for your loved ones. One thing death is not is spiteful. Just promoted? Well, you’re way too happy so obviously you have to die now. Nope. That’s not how death works. I don’t know how it works, but I like to think that we’re not being punished for being happy.

Death is not a punishment. It isn’t a consequence for doing something wrong or failing. Well, I suppose that’s arguable if the thing you’re doing is skydiving without a parachute. And, actually, death is punishment in the eyes of the justice system. So this post is riddled with lies and contradictions. I know nothing. Except that we’re all going to die. Spoiler alert.

Anyway, going back to that earlier conversation with a friend about ideal deaths. Working in a morgue,  I’ve been exposed to a lot of different ways to die. Burned. Crushed. Shot. Run over. Stabbed. Bludgeoned. Overdosed. Hung. Froze. Drowned. Decapitated. Suffocated. Jumped. Fell. The list goes on. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t get to choose how we die.

Side tangent: Can we talk about terminology? The myriad of ways in which we choose to talk about death without actually saying the word “death” amazes me. 

That’s just off the top of my head! I think we all need to practice using the words “death,” “dying,” “died,” and “dead”. I’m not trying to push mortality on you, but I think it’d help ease us into being more comfortable talking about it if we can actually say the words. End tangent.

Anyway. Ideal death. In the event that I don’t get my wish and I don’t die peacefully in my sleep, I have one request: Please, please, please don’t let me die on the toilet.

I’ve had about a dozen cases since starting in the morgue that involved toilet deaths. They’re more common than I thought. They’re not pleasant for anyone involved. And hey, everybody poops. That’s not the issue here. I’d like to die with some dignity and not with my pants around my ankles.

The nature in which you die almost seems to validate your death. At the very least it has some influence over how people respond to your death. Died saving someone? Died in the line of duty? Died due to a freak accident? I guarantee it’ll help soften the blow. “She died doing what she loves.” “She died so another could live.” “They lived a long life.” “They’re with *insert loved one’s name here* now.”

Die while on the toilet? There’s nothing noble or heroic about a toilet death. No one says that you died doing what you loved. I promise you that every person, upon finding out someone they know died on a toilet, thinks “ew”. Then they’ll picture it. They won’t want to, but inevitably it’ll come. And for a moment, they’re embarrassed for you.

No thank you.

Thinking about toilet deaths has made me more aware of how much time I spend in the bathroom. Thanks to smartphones, number twos take longer than they use to. IF we were to add up all the time we spend on the toilet, I think we’d find that death has ample opportunity to strike us down.

Why I’m Donating My Body to Science

“A donated organ can save a life, but a body provides the foundation to save many more.”

In 2009, my mom and I went to see Body Worlds, a traveling exhibit of dissected human bodies preserved through plastination. I had seen it before, but it’s always better to experience these things with another person. I wanted her to see why I was in such awe of the human body. I left the museum that day having made three decisions: my mom is a good sport, $30 for a organ donor t-shirt was totally worth it, and I am donating my body.

Up until that day, I hadn’t given much thought to what would happen to my body after I died. Do I want to be buried? Cremated? Shot into space? To be honest, none of that crossed my mind. I was 25 and invincible. But after walking through the Body Worlds exhibit for the second time, I knew that a coffin six feet under ground wasn’t for me. My atoms crave fame. (Not really. They crave caffeine.)

Body Worlds

Before leaving the exhibit, I used one of the computers there to sign up as a donator. Instead of donating my money, however, I opted to donate my body. It was almost too easy, and part of me believed that I had just sent one of those “wish you were here” museum postcards to a family member. But weeks later I received confirmation in the mail—I even got a fancy ID card to carry with me so people know what to do with my body when I die.

Side note: To be fair, it wasn’t just Body Worlds that had led me down this path. By this point in my life, I had attended several cadaver labs and read “Stiff” by Mary Roach. This book opened my eyes to not only the need for cadavers, but the very important purpose they serve in a number of research capacities. It’s a fascinating book, and she’s a brilliant author. I recommend reading it.

Nearly 10 years later, I haven’t changed my mind. My body will be donated when I die. What has changed is who I am donating it to. While the Body Worlds exhibit is enlightening, there isn’t much need for bodies to be plastinated and put on display. While it serves an educational purpose, it’s self-serving. What is needed, however, are bodies for medical students, anthropologists, ballistics experts, and first-responders.

Giant Heart

In 2016, National Geographic reported that the demand for cadavers is up, but the supply is down. The Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois reported that annual donations fell from 760 in 1984 to 520 in 2015. This was disheartening to read because body donation is such a wonderful gift. There are more than 20,000 enrolled first-year medical students, and for them, anatomy class is a rite of passage. With about six students assigned to one body, it really limits the amount of hands-on learning future doctors have.

According to NatGeo, in 2008, Colorado and Wyoming were 20 bodies short of the 158 cadavers requested by the states’ medical schools. And with physician assistant and nurse practitioner programs now utilizing cadavers, in addition to vocations outside of medical school, the supply is even more strained.

“There are more than 120 million registered organ donors in the United States, and an average of 79 people receive transplants each day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The federal government does not monitor whole body donations in the United States, but researchers estimate each year fewer than 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to medical research and training.”

This doesn’t sit right with me. I have gained so much knowledge from the generosity of body donors, and I’m not even in medical school. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I can’t imagine that I’d rest easily knowing that I opted to keep my body in a box instead of helping future medical professionals better understand anatomy, physiology, and pathology.

Now I’m not here to tell you what to do with your body. It’s yours. But I do hope that maybe I can answer some questions for you in the event that you’re considering body donation.

What is body donation?

Simply put, body donation is the donation of a whole body after death for education and research. Donated bodies are primarily used for medical education and research, but cadavers have helped industries outside of medicine, including NASA and car manufacturers.

What will happen to my body?

That all depends on where you donate your body. In medical settings, donated bodies are mostly used for gross anatomy and surgical anatomy. In 2015, Vice published an in-depth article about what happens to your body after it’s been donated. I recommend checking it out. But to be blunt, you will be dissected. Remember that fetal pig in high school biology? More than likely, though, you’ll be treated with much more respect than that pig.

Your body will be embalmed, which means your blood and other bodily fluids are replaced with chemical preservers. This makes it so your body will last instead of decompose. Side note: read my previous post all about decomposition.

In my personal experience with cadavers, I’ve worked with whole bodies and well as parts, such as arms and legs. I have seen skulls cut open to reveal the hollow space where the brain once sat. I have also seen heads split in half down the middle to reveal the inner workings of the nasal and pharyngeal areas. I have been the person doing the dissecting, and I’ve also been the person who observes the body post-dissection. It all depends on the class you’re taking and career path you’re heading down.

If you’re looking for a moving first-hand account of a cadaver lab, I recommend reading “Body of Work” by Christine Montross.

How can I donate my body?

There are several ways to do it. First and foremost, you can opt to be an organ donor. This is much more common than whole body donation. Working at the morgue, I receive a lot of Gift of Hope patients. These are bodies that have already had their corneas, organs, long bones, and even some skin removed.

My next recommendation is to check with your state to see if they have a formal organization. Illinois, where I am located, has the Anatomical Gift Association. It receives, prepares, preservers, and distributes donated human remains to medical education and research institutions across Illinois.

You might also consider research facilities like a “body farm”. The most notable one, at least in my opinion, is located at the University of Tennessee. It was founded in 1981 and has been used to study human decomposition. Similar projects have followed at Western Carolina University, Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Southern Illinois University, and Colorado Mesa University. All six are, or at least at one point, accepted human donations. If you like podcasts, here’s a great one about body farms from the guys at Stuff You Should Know.

What happens to my body when they’re done?

That’s a great question. In my research, I’ve read that most places hold a type of memorial service or ceremony. Certain institutions will invite family members, while others prefer to limit it to the students and faculty that worked with the cadavers. It’s a great way to show respect and gratitude for the generous gift. Bodies are then cremated, and their remains are returned to their families.

So there you have it. It’s a very quick overview of body donation. If you are considering it, I encourage you to research further. Like me, you might change your mind about where you’d like your body to go or what you’d like it used for. It’s an important decision, and one that shouldn’t be made impulsively. That said, it’s truly a wonderful gift and one that I am extremely proud to give.