INVESTIGATORS: Radiation and records - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Radiation and records

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A father in Big Lake, Minn., believes a military accident left him fighting for his life and for answers, but when the Fox 9 Investigators began asking questions, those answers started to come into the light.

Former Airman Nathan Edward Morris must run a medical drill once every four months. Blood is drawn, an MRI is taken and the oncologist will read the results Morris believes can be linked back to what might be called friendly fire from 11 years ago.

"I was radiated in my first duty assignment in the Air Force," Morris stated.

Morris was just 21 when he was stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Utah in 2001. He and an airman named John Groundwater, who now lives in Alaska, were training as radio maintenance techs and were working on antennas perched atop mobile units just 20 to 50 feet from a large radar system.

Radar emits strong radio frequency radiation as it scans the skies. When anyone is working in its direct path, radar techs are supposed to set what is known as a blanking pattern to ensure the waves aren't directed near those who are working nearby.

"After a few minutes … we were sweating pretty bad," John Groundwater, who spoke with the Fox 9 Investigators over Skype, said. "It was freezing out."

Morris said the two spoke with the sergeant that was training them, and when he eventually put his ear up to one of the antennas, he heard something.

"Every 10 seconds, you could hear a buzz," Groundwater recalled.

Morris said the sergeant informed them they had been hit by radiation and needed to get down. Both went to the base hospital with severe headaches.

"Definitely headaches, nausea," Morris said.

Groundwater explained that being irradiated is much like being cooked, but life for Morris went on pretty normally after the incident. He left the service and got married. Now 36, Morris has a family -- a daughter and two sons; however, his whole life is under attack.

"Nate has a tumor," Dr. John Trusheim, an oncologist with the Minneapolis Neuroscience Institute, explained. "These types of tumors do start in the brain."

The type of tumor Morris has invades in a way that makes treatment very, very tricky.

"They are actually an infiltrating tumor. They go through the brain," Trusheim said.

Morris's tumor is so invasive that only a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic was willing to operate on it last July. Before he went under the knife, he asked for a few days to take his family fishing.

"I just wanted my kids to see me normal just in case something happened," Morris said. "We had a good time, did a lot of fishing. It was good."

Doctors believe they were able to cut most of the cancer out.

"But there are always some tumor cells left behind, and over the long term, it is likely those will grow and change," Dr. Derek Johnson admitted.

That is why Morris finds himself back at Mayo Clinic so often. The system of sashaying patients from appointment to appointment is incredibly slick and is specifically designed so the sick don't have to wait for days to get results -- but every minute spent waiting is one that makes Morris "nervous."

"The most stressful part is when you see the oncologist and you're waiting and he walks in," Angie Morris said. "You're thinking, 'What's he going to tell you?'"

The Oncology Department is on the eighth floor, and for the Morris family, the anxiety rises with each trip there -- but the battle for good health is not the only one they're fighting.

"I just want recognition that it is a strong possibility that the accident that happened in the service caused this brain tumor," Morris said.

Both Morris and Groundwater remember being told a mistake had been made and that someone had calibrated the radar wrong on that January day in 2001, an error that left them in harm's way. Although doctors can't say for sure what caused the tumor, they do know Morris would not be its typical target.

"We know there are certain families in which they run, but his family doesn't have that," Trusheim told the Fox 9 Investigators.

Morris asked the VA to cover his medical expenses, and a new waiting game began.

"It's taking too long," he said. "The longer you wait, the worse you think it is."

In the end, the response from the VA came in a letter saying there are no long-term effects -- including cancer -- from low-level exposure to radio frequency radiation.

"Someone screwed up. It wasn't intentional, but my case was not normal job duty exposure," Morris contends.

Trusheim has also written letters to the VA to say he believes the radiation most likely caused the tumor. So far, however, the VA has said that isn't enough.

Morris said, "In my opinion, they deny and deny and deny you until you go away and say, 'I've had enough.'"

Morris thought checking his medical records from that day would help. In hindsight, he wishes he hadn't.

"I called to tell them I needed my medical records because I was needing to file a VA claim," Morris said.

They sent a jumbled pile of notes regarding a tonsillectomy, wisdom teeth surgery and other ailments -- but the one he was looking for wasn't there at all.

"I was missing the record that said I'd been radiated in Utah," Morris said. "I was very upset. I could not believe it was missing."

Groundwater collected his records simply as a matter of course when he left the base years ago. His records include the radiation accident which say he'd been exposed for 20 minutes at a proximity of between 20 and 50 feet.

"If I believe in something, I'm going to follow it to the end," Morris vowed.

The trouble is, no one knows exactly what "the end" means.

"I worry about it because it doesn't seem like it is a good way to go," Morris admitted.

So, the family does what it can to shore up his defenses.

"The MRI looks good. This is the type of tumor that is likely to come back, but there is no reason it has to any time soon," Dr. Johnson told Morris.

For Morris, he does have the sense that the military won't fight as hard for him as he is fighting for himself. When the Fox 9 Investigators contacted the Air Force looking for answers, a lieutenant colonel responded to admit the accident occurred; however, he said safety practices have been improved. Most importantly, he said the Air Force coordinated with the VA to confirm Morris was irradiated.

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