The unseen effects of the country’s worst commercial nuclear accident

The Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign is publishing a series of testimonies from the leaders of the campaign about why they joined the campaign as part of a national effort to document and uplift the voices of the most affected. The following statement was given during a Poor People’s Hearing in Harrisburg, PA in November 2019.

Katrina Raser is a Healthcare Rights Committee co-coordinator with Put People First! PA in Harrisburg, PA.

On March 28th, 1979, Three Mile Island had a “partial meltdown.” Three Mile Island was a nuclear power plant about 15 miles from Harrisburg, PA.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Dauphin County, PA

It was and still is the nation’s worst commercial nuclear accident. And yet the plant remained active until September of this year — but back to 1979.

My mom was less than five miles away at the time of the leak.

She was scared, and she was pregnant.

The crisis ended three days later when it was determined that there was no risk of explosion, but the damage was already done.

It’s estimated that two million people were exposed to “acceptable levels” of radiation. For my family, that number was two million and one: my mom and my brother.

Six weeks after the meltdown, my brother was born. He seemed a happy and healthy baby. However, while the government claimed that no adverse effects in human, animal, or plant life were directly correlated to the meltdown, throughout his infancy and on into early childhood my infant brother cried all night long. My parents tried to console him. They spent hours attempting to rock a wailing child to sleep to no avail.

Fast forward to my brother’s sophomore year of high school. My brother now suffered from severe, chronic headaches, but was undeterred in living his life like every other high schooler. He was an honor student and your average, goofy teenager and jock. During some sporting event, he suffered head trauma and was sent to the hospital and it was then that doctors found a brain tumor the size of a golf ball.

In the summer of 1995, my brother underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor. After surgery, his temperature spiked and his brain swelled, because of this he suffered permanent brain damage and he spent the summer recovering in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. During his hospital stay, his roommate died; I’ve never seen my parents so scared, thinking as they were that that would also be his fate.

One year later, my brother returned to school. One of the lasting effects of his traumatic brain injury is a sleep disorder which causes him to fall asleep behind the wheel of his Jeep and, sure enough, one day he drove off the road and flipped his jeep in midair. He landed in a tree, but he survived. His license was, however, revoked. My brother could no longer drive himself around. He was upset, but he was also afraid. We got into an argument because of the accident; our sibling arguments weren’t unusual. What was unusual is that he didn’t argue back. My brother, who used to tease me and fight with me, my brother who would never give in, my brother who would always fight back, that brother was gone. Now he was just a scared teenager fighting for his life.

Fast forward another year. Post-surgery, my brother had lost his short-term memory, but thanks to great efforts from him, my parents, a tutor, and the school, he graduated. His friends had all fallen away. Maybe they were never really friends. Or maybe they just didn’t know how to interact with him. Maybe they saw in him a reminder of their own mortality. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. In the end they graduated and went their separate ways. They started their lives. They went to college. They found careers. They started families. But not my brother. He didn’t go to college. He didn’t fall in love. He didn’t get to live independently.

Today, my brother still requires life-sustaining medication. His meds cost over $100,000 a year. Without insurance, we could not afford to keep him alive. For this reason, he is stuck in a low-paying job that exploits its workers to the extreme. He routinely works 10 or more hours a day, 6–7 days a week so he can be insured. He works grueling hours in freezing conditions just so that he has insurance. Without his healthcare, he will die.

To an insurance company, he is high-risk, all because he has a pre-existing condition that we know to have started on that fateful day that the plant had its meltdown.

Just like Three Mile Island authorities never assumed responsibility and put profit over lives, the insurance company only sees a bottom line and holds my brother’s life in its hands. They don’t see a son, a brother or an uncle. They don’t see an athlete or an artist, a lover or a fighter.

They see a bottom line.

My brother is not a profit or a loss. He is a human being. And he is why I fight for healthcare as a HUMAN right in Put People First! PA and why I fight for all our human rights and against ecological devastation in our home, in our state, with the Poor People’s Campaign.

PA-PPC: A National Call for Moral Revival is a movement led by the poor, demanding an end to poverty, racism, militarism & ecological devastation.

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