Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

21 Jun 2010, 12:26 p.m.

Becquerels and Bureaucracy

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Guess who's mildly radioactive! Hmm, I should back up.

I've been traveling a LOT. About a week ago, I was on a plane back to New York City when I started feeling some discomfort in my chest and some shortness of breath. "Uh, what's this?" I said, and asked a flight attendant for advice.* I got supplemental oxygen, which felt lovely. (I can now verify that, though the bag may not inflate, oxygen will be flowing to the mask.) But over the next few days, I sometimes still felt that strange not-breathing-all-the-way sensation, so I talked to my doctor, who scheduled me for a


which I had today. A technician injected me with isotopes of technetium and thallium. Then a gamma camera took images of my supine torso from lots of angles, I ran on a treadmill while EKG leads trailed from my chest and told a computer about my heartrate, and then the camera imaged me while I was at rest again. I basically feel fine and doubt there's much to worry about, but I'll find out in a few days.

With hypatia, who recently got magnets in her fingernails, we now have half the four fundamental forces covered: electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force (at least through the three-day half-life of the thallium). Do any of my readers embody particularly extreme manifestations of the strong nuclear force or gravity?

Since I fly to San Francisco tomorrow, I got a letter I can show the TSA to explain why I'm setting off their Geiger counters.

I also got a copy of the diagnosticians' HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy/compliance practices. This should not be a big deal, since every health care provider in the US should shove one at every patient upon intake and make her sign the "yes I got a copy" line on the intake forms. Funny variation here: I got the form to sign, but no copy of the privacy notice itself! I politely refused to falsely sign the "I've received a copy" line, and asked for my copy of the privacy notice. The technician had no idea where it was. The receptionist called around and got someone to fax her ... the first page of the four-page document. She gave it to me and I looked at it.

"This is only the first page," I pointed out.

"Well, you know, it's just about privacy," the receptionist said.

"I'm not going to sign something saying I got it if I didn't get the whole thing," I said, a touch irascibly.

The technician said that, since I hadn't signed anything saying I'd gotten the document, it was "fine," implying that the receptionist didn't need to go to the trouble of finding a copy for me.

"I'd like it anyway, please," I said. And she said it would take a little while, so I said (pleasantly, I hope) that I'd wait, and returned to my issue of Analog.

Pretty soon after that, the receptionist got/found a copy for me, and I signed the form, and she said that now she'd make sure to keep copies around for people. But, as you've probably surmised by now, that doesn't reassure me much. If it caused that much inconvenience for them to find a copy for me -- of the notice that by law, they should be giving every patient -- and patients have just been signing the "yeah, I got it" line anyway, then what faith do I have that they're complying with the privacy provisions themselves?

"It's just about privacy." And doesn't that just speak volumes about how important my privacy is to them.

Anyway, I'm radioactive. No superpowers yet. Becquerels are the SI unit of radioactivity. Maybe I'll get my hair dyed some color unnatural.

* The flight attendant was kind, reacted with exactly the right amount and type of concern, and told me that the JFK airport has no on-site first-aid center, so if I still felt off after landing, I'd be better off going under my own power to an urgent care center rather than risking the cost of paramedics. Flight attendant: you're great. US healthcare system: why you gotta be like that? JFK: WTF?


21 Jun 2010, 13:27 p.m.

The world's 16th busiest airport has no first aid station???

Also: Magnetic fingernails = very cool!

Hope you are ok.

21 Jun 2010, 14:13 p.m.

stress test? are you sure you didn't get abducted into Scientology?

That's all a bit scary

21 Jun 2010, 17:34 p.m.

Rachel: Leonard also made a Scientology joke when he heard of the test, I think.

Susie: yes, I know, it makes no sense that such a busy airport has no first aid station! Maybe there is some kind of employees-only thing that no one mentions in the publicly available information.

I'm feeling fine right now, so please don't worry!

Eric Fischer
21 Jun 2010, 20:40 p.m.

Oh wow, that is all kind of alarming. I'm glad you're feeling better now!

22 Jun 2010, 4:16 a.m.

Hah, I regret that I don't have a better unrelationship to gravity. I'm going rock climbing semi-regularly, but I don't think that counts. I'll work on it, but you may no longer be radioactive by the time I come up with something suitably technological.

Ugh, to the "just about privacy". Quite.