Medical treatments and procedures have changed a lot in the 32 years Terry Midkiff has been a radiation therapist. Midkiff says when he started his career, radiation therapy for cancer consisted primarily of one beam of cobalt radiation aimed as much as possible at the tumors inside patients.
If all goes as planned, beginning Monday at the Southern Ohio Medical Center’s Cancer Center, a new approximately $4 million gizmo technically known as an Elektra Versa HD linear accelerator will be able to aim, with previously unheard-of precision, up to eight beams of two different types of radiation at the deadly tumors inside patients. Midkiff says the machine is known as an accelerator, because it accelerates beams of radiation into patients. SOMC has an accelerator in use now, but the new machine offers numerous technical improvements.
Wendi Waugh, administrative director of cancer services/community health and wellness for SOMC, says the new machine should serve the hospital’s patients with state-of-the-art cancer care into the next decade. She talks about the accelerator delivering stereotactic ablative radiotherapy, or “SABR,” to local cancer patients. Waugh refers to the huge machine as an “electronic knife,” capable of so precisely targeting cancerous tumors, the results fairly can be compared to the work of a skilled surgeon with a sharp scalpel.
Midkiff says the machine’s so-called “leaves” are one key to the accelerator’s extreme effectiveness. The leaves allow the machine to sort of, for lack of a better word, sculpt the radiation used to treat patients. As noted by Waugh, the accelerator can target tumors, while, importantly, leaving healthy tissue untouched.
One other key to the accelerator’s effectiveness is a so-called “hexa POD” table on which patients will rest, says Midkiff’s co-worker, radiation technician Amber Pfankuch. The table can, of course, be raised and lowered or moved side to side. But more importantly, it can move in terms of what might be best thought of as “pitch and yaw.” Think of a boat bobbing on the water. Like that boat, the accelerator’s patient table can be moved to different angles, tilting the patient sideways or up and down as needed, again to allow precise targeting of radiation beams. Midkiff also talks about how the new machine provides views of the patient’s anatomy, still again allowing for even more precise targeting. He compares that to the old days when he says radiation technicians worked mostly using X-rays to guide them.
Incidentally, X-rays use a few thousand volts of radiation. The accelerator uses millions, Midkiff says.
In addition to allowing extremely precise targeting of tumors, Waugh and the others note the new machine is much kinder, if you will, to patients. Not only does it spare more healthy tissue than traditional radiation treatments, it allows for less treatment time, potentially fewer treatments and considerably milder side effects.
Waugh says SOMC made the commitment to bring SABR technology to this area about 18 months ago. “It’s not a quick process,” she admits. The accelerator was brought in to SOMC’s Cancer Center in pieces and placed in a $1 million “vault” consisting of about 80 to 90 inches of solid concrete walls, according to Midkiff. A few days prior to the first use of the machine, Midkiff says a team of physicists was working to, as he put it, “commission the machine.” In simplistic terms, the team was calibrating and checking the aim of the various beams to be used to treat patients.
One unique facet of the treatment room is a mural on the room’s ceiling, a mural completed by Robert Dafford, the same person responsible for Portsmouth’s famous flood wall murals. Waugh says the mural was paid for by hospital guilds in an effort to make patients more comfortable.
“They just wanted to give something back,” Waugh says.
The mural depicts a forest scene as well as the Portsmouth skyline. According to Waugh, the mural is just another way to make patients feel at home. She talks about how having the accelerator in Portsmouth is important for any number of reasons, including, perhaps especially, as it will allow patients quite possibly fighting for their lives to stay close to home, skipping a long drive to Columbus or Cincinnati. She says such trips are not only uncomfortable for the patients, but can be incredibly disruptive to the lives of their families and loved ones. In Waugh’s opinion, the importance of treating patients locally cannot be overstated, and it was a big reason SOMC decided to bring an accelerator to Portsmouth.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931