This is the fifth of a series of profiles on the nine standout public servants who received Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) honoring their high-impact contributions to the health, safety and well-being of Americans at a Washington, D.C. gala September 15. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, are among the most prestigious honors given to America’s civil servants. This profile features the winner of the homeland security medal, Norman Coleman, associate director of the Radiation Research Program at the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute.

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.

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.” – Norman Coleman.

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; and created plans for managing a radiation crisis and dealing with mass casualties.

“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.

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.

As head of a Department of Health and Human Services team dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear issues, Coleman leads the nation’s preparedness for handling victims of a radiological and nuclear attack, coordinating his efforts with the White House, other government agencies, academic scientists and physicians. In this role, he also oversaw preparation of the Radiation Emergency Medical Management website (, a guide for doctors and others involved in treating, handling and caring for victims, and 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.”