Doc­tor on Call: Cher­nobyl Respon­der, Jew­ish Refugee, Radi­a­tion Expert

  • Review
By – May 31, 2021

Jew­ish life in the Sovi­et Union pri­or to its col­lapse can seem like a dis­tant real­i­ty to many read­ers today. Alla Shapiro brings that world into sear­ing focus in her mem­oir, Doc­tor on Call: Cher­nobyl Respon­der, Jew­ish Refugee, Radi­a­tion Expert. Shapiro’s book explores her expe­ri­ences first liv­ing and work­ing as a pedi­a­tri­cian and hema­tol­o­gist in Ukraine, and lat­er in the Unit­ed States; it is rich with his­tor­i­cal details and per­son­al anec­dotes. As a res­i­dent of a coun­try that dis­crim­i­nat­ed against both women and Jews, Shapiro endured numer­ous hard­ships and man­aged to rise above them all to carve out a reward­ing, pro­duc­tive career and to raise a lov­ing, close-knit family.

In 1986, Shapiro was work­ing at a children’s hos­pi­tal in Kiev, Ukraine, when she and her col­leagues were abrupt­ly told by their super­vi­sor that a nuclear dis­as­ter had occurred at near­by Cher­nobyl. Hun­dreds of chil­dren in the imme­di­ate area had been evac­u­at­ed and were com­ing to their hos­pi­tal for treat­ment. Shapiro’s com­pas­sion for her young patients was matched by her frus­tra­tion and grow­ing hor­ror at the Sovi­et government’s response, which was to attempt to cov­er up the mag­ni­tude of the nuclear explo­sion. A heart­break­ing exam­ple occurred when Shapiro attempt­ed to learn more about radi­a­tion sick­ness by vis­it­ing the Nation­al Med­ical Library, where she was shocked to see dozens of emp­ty shelves and was told in a whis­per that the gov­ern­ment had ordered the removal of all books con­tain­ing the word radi­a­tion.”

The bureau­crat­ic lies, cou­pled with decades of pro­fes­sion­al dis­crim­i­na­tion, even­tu­al­ly led Shapiro and her fam­i­ly to immi­grate to the Unit­ed States. Along the way, they were forced to remain for six months in Italy while await­ing per­mis­sion to enter Amer­i­ca. Once they arrived in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Shapiro dis­cov­ered that more obsta­cles stood before her — in order to con­tin­ue work­ing as a doc­tor, she had to pass rig­or­ous exams for for­eign-edu­cat­ed med­ical pro­fes­sion­als and then begin a res­i­den­cy pro­gram. While work­ing 100-hour weeks, she also learned Eng­lish, nav­i­gat­ed a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, and helped her young daugh­ter accli­mate to a new school. Shapiro’s grat­i­tude to the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that wel­comed and sup­port­ed her fam­i­ly upon their arrival in the Unit­ed States and her thank­ful­ness to work in a med­ical envi­ron­ment that fos­ters open­ness shines through in the final chap­ters. Her depic­tion of her expe­ri­ences as an immi­grant will res­onate with read­ers and serve as a time­ly rejec­tion of xeno­pho­bia. Those eager to learn more about life in the Sovi­et Union or the Cher­nobyl dis­as­ter will uncov­er many absorb­ing details in this book. Those look­ing for an inspi­ra­tional read won’t be dis­ap­point­ed, either.

Anne Blankman has loved to write sto­ries for as long as she can remem­ber. She grew up in Niskayu­na, New York, where she met a class­mate who had sur­vived Cher­nobyl and who even­tu­al­ly inspired Anne to write The Black­bird Girls. They are still friends to this day. Cur­rent­ly, Anne lives in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia with her hus­band, Mike, her daugh­ter, Kirsten, and two res­cue cats. For sev­er­al years, she worked as a chil­dren’s librar­i­an but now she writes full-time. When she isn’t writ­ing, Anne likes to spend time with her fam­i­ly, read, trav­el, knit, and go for long runs. She loves hear­ing from read­ers, and you can vis­it her at anneblankman​.com or @AnneBlankman.

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