The Last Gift Of Terry Riordon
By RAYMOND D. COHEN*
Thousands of military veterans of the Gulf War have reported a whole range of ailments and disabling conditions -- come to be referred to collectively as Gulf War syndrome. The numbers are not immediately clear for Canada, but in the US some 70,000 veterans are dealing with severe health problems.
(11 November 2004) -- Symptoms of Gulf War syndrome include depression, chronic fatigue, anxiety, respiratory problems, memory and attention disorders, joint pain, skin rashes, musculoskeletal disorders, shortness of breath, insomnia, hair loss, dizziness, nausea and nerve damage.
Adding to the pain and frustration of those trying to cope with this condition has been the negation by "experts" or that it is more than a result of emotional trauma. Perhaps it’s just a giant coincidence that thousands participating in the Persian Gulf conflict all happened to experience similar symptoms at about the same time.
It is odd that when our experts don’t understand a condition, they seem more inclined to dismiss it with an "it’s-all-in-your-head" attitude over a more constructive position of, "We don’t know, we don’t understand -- perhaps we can try to find out."
Interestingly, the symptoms those contending with Gulf War syndrome are almost identical to many Canadians with environmental sensitivities. Their problems too were often compounded by experts who dismissed their conditions as being psychosomatic. And although the disability is now more acknowledged by government, there are still other professionals who doubt those with it.
The situation becomes even more confusing when, perhaps inevitably, psychological effects sometimes do set in as a consequence of the lack of intervention of the professionals mandated to treat them, or the inaction of policy makers mandated to look at the circumstances which caused symptoms in the first place.
In the case of our Gulf War veterans, there seems to be some movement at the federal level spurred on by the death last year of Terry Riordon of Nova Scotia. Mr. Riordon’s final wish, expressed to his wife, Sue, was that his organ and bone tissue be examined after his death to attest to what he knew to be true all along -- Gulf War syndrome is real. The test results indicated that traces of a radioactive metal, depleted uranium, remained in his body -- nine years after he left the field of conflict.
Depleted uranium was present in the tank armour and missile shells used by the military in the Gulf War. Troops were exposed to it either directly, or through radioactive dust emanating from the weapons and equipment.
Defense Minister Art Eggleton now says the military will look closely at those tests results and the possible widespread exposure to radioactive material in the Gulf War. The federal government is now willing to test any members of the Canadian forces who feel they may have been exposed to depleted uranium while on duty.
While this decision may come too late for the Terry Riordons of the world, it is at least a willingness to assume a stance of, "I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell going to find out,"as opposed to, "I don’t know, so it must be all in your head."
How often, and how much longer, must Canadians endure official denials of life-stealing problems? Why is it that a sweeping compromise of our health and well-being must occur before some kind of intervention -- usually occurring too late for those whose final sacrifices eventually forced the issue -- is implemented?
Canada’s blood scandal is not that far behind us, in which untold thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV and hepatitis C. In this issue of ABILITIES, we point to unacceptable (but perfectly legal) exposure to lead threatening our children ("Thumbs Down," p. 7). And genetically altered food, currently common fare in our supermarkets, is anybody’s nightmare; our health department assures us that it’s safe, but the track record is not so reassuring.
It is time we adopt a philosophy of prevention within our policies -- and within our institutions -- and certainly within our homes and choices of health care practitioners.
And it is time, too, that we accept that disability and pain being expressed by people in search of relief is real -- regardless of whether or not the source is obvious.
Let’s each do what we can to turn this situation around. Be a vocal consumer. Find out who is in charge, politically, socially, medically -- and don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. We owe it to ourselves, our families and our communities. And perhaps we owe it to Terry Riordon, whose last gift was a message that it’s up to citizens to speak up when we’re told, "It’s all in your head."
*Abilities Magazine, Canadian Abilities Foundation
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