Dr. C. Norman Coleman, a renowned radiation oncologist, developed a comprehensive roadmap to help the U.S. government and emergency responders prepare for a dreadful scenario—a terrorist attack involving radiological or nuclear materials.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) physician led and mobilized teams of experts that determined what levels of radiation exposure to the human body pose a danger; developed treatment schemes to increase chances of survival; created plans for managing a radiation crisis and dealing with mass casualties; and built a user-friendly website to aid doctors and others involved in treating, handling and caring for radiation victims in the midst of a crisis.
“Exposure to radiation or nuclear materials can be a horrendous thing, and most people don’t want to think about it. As a country, we didn’t really get serious and think about it until after 9/11,” said Coleman.
“Prior to that, our attitude had been, ‘If something occurs, it’s hopeless,’” said Coleman. “Our approach now has been, ‘What can science bring to our response in the aftermath and what new medical diagnostics and treatments do we need to develop?’”
Coleman’s extensive and ongoing work unexpectedly came into play following the March 11, 2011, 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan—two catastrophic events that caused extensive damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plants. In the aftermath, the plants leaked radiation, threatening the population, as well as food and water supplies.
Coleman flew to Japan with a team of other experts, and used the medical, scientific and response guidelines he developed to advise the U.S. Embassy, Americans living in Japan and the Japanese government.
“I was preparing for this my entire life, but you hope it never happens,” said Coleman. “What is pretty obvious is the fear people have from radiation and the need to have credible information out there.”
While in Japan, Coleman analyzed available radiation data, assessed the risks to human health, offered guidance on when potassium iodide should be used to counteract radioiodine contamination, provided assistance for travel warnings, and held informational town hall meetings with embassy staff and other Americans.
“We were able to tell them, ‘Here is what you have to worry about, and what you don’t have to worry about. We told them we were their “designated worriers’” said Coleman. “It’s scary because you can’t see or feel radiation, but you can measure it. Our explanations gave comfort to people once they understood the situation.”
Coleman also consulted with Japanese officials, helping assess the immediate and potential medical risks and offering advice on the short and long term responses to protect the population and communicate accurate information. He said there were lessons about the response and reaction in Japan that will be carefully studied and incorporated in U.S planning.
“I am a physician and I know the medical consequences. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to use my skills and help people,” he said.
Dr. Eric Bernhard, a colleague at NIH, said Coleman’s extensive work on radiation offered “a rational, scientific-based approach to deal with exactly the type of situation in Japan.”
“Norm has thought about these horrific situations from every angle, all the way from the ethical dilemmas that may arise to what’s going on with a victim at the cellular level,” said Bernhard.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the increased concern about the potential use of improvised nuclear devices, Coleman assembled scientists with expertise in radiation biology and oncology to identify the gaps in our knowledge. This work guided the efforts of a multi-million dollar research and training program at NIH dealing with medical countermeasures against radiological and nuclear threats.
In 2004, Coleman was named to head a Department of Health and Human Services team dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear issues. In this role, he developed the blueprint for, and continues to lead, the nation’s preparedness for handling victims of a radiological and nuclear attack, and has coordinated his efforts with the White House, other government agencies, academic scientists and physicians.
He also oversaw preparation of the Radiation Emergency Medical Management website (remm.nlm.gov), a guide for doctors and others involved in treating, handling and caring for victims, and has led teams of experts in publishing a series of 10 manuscripts on managing casualties of a nuclear attack in an environment of scarce resources.
“Dr. Coleman recognized that a radiological or nuclear attack involving thousands of victims would require quick decisions and action by medical personnel and responders under unfamiliar, chaotic conditions,” said Dr. Helen Stone, a former NIH colleague. “Because of Norm Coleman, we have a much better understanding of what to do if people are exposed to radiation or nuclear materials.”
This medalist was the recipient of the Justice and Law Enforcement Medal. This medal was combined with the Homeland Security category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.