The 9-11 Commission’s invitation to imagine: A pathophysiology-based approach to critical care of nuclear explosion victims*

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The successful management of mass casualties arising from detonation of a nuclear device (NDD) would require significant preparation at all levels of the healthcare system. This article briefly outlines previously published models of destruction and casualties, details approaches to on-site triage and medical evacuation, and offers pathophysiology-based suggestions for treatment of the critically injured. Documentation from previous bomb blasts and nuclear accidents is reviewed to assist in forecasting needs of both systems and patients in the event of an NDD in a major metropolitan area.

Data Sources/Study Selection:

This review extracts data from previously published models of destruction and casualties projected from an NDD, the primary literature detailing observations of patients’ pathophysiology following NDDs in Japan and relevant nuclear accidents, and available contemporary resources for first responders and healthcare providers.

Data Extraction/Synthesis:

The blast and radiation exposures that accompany an NDD will significantly affect local and regional public resources. Morbidity and mortality likely to arise in the setting of dose-dependent organ dysfunction may be minimized by rigorous a priori planning/training for field triage decisions, coordination of medical and civil responses to effect rapid responses and medical evacuation routes, radiation-specific interventions, and modern intensive care.


Although the responses of emergency and healthcare systems following NDD will vary depending on the exact mechanism, magnitude, and location of the event, dose exposures and individual pathophysiology evolution are reasonably predictable. Triage decisions, resource requirements, and bedside therapeutic plans can be evidence-based and can be developed rapidly with appropriate preparation and planning.

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