As a few friends and I met for coffee one weekend, our conversation gravitated toward the value and contribution of the professional discipline that each of us represented: physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, nursing, respiratory therapy and radiology. During our spirited discussion, we realized the invisible thread that connects us is the field of radiology. Our individual disciplines often  have a close collaborative relationship with one other discipline, such as the collaboration between PT and OT, or respiratory therapy and nursing. However, the practice that connects the disciplines, although it may not be as obvious, is radiology for both diagnostic or treatment purposes. Thus, our conversation shifted toward learning more about the field of radiology.

Jenny, the radiologic technologist in our group, was more than happy to give us a crash course.

The wonders of technology

Jenny said before X-ray machines were invented, tumors, broken bones and the location of foreign objects, such as bullets, inside the body were diagnosed by physical examination and by “guesstimation”. Fortunately, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen observed in 1895 a type of radiation given off as he worked with cathode radiation. He experimented with the unfamiliar radiation, which he called an X-ray because it was an unknown quantity, and created the first X-ray image of a body part – the bones in his wife’s hand.

In those early years, pioneers working with X-rays died from too much exposure to the radiation before they knew it could be harmful. However, by the early 1900s the damaging qualities of X-rays were known and harnessed to fight cancers and skin diseases. Thus, X-rays began to serve two purposes: to assist in diagnoses and as a treatment modality.

Jenny said what she likes about being a radiologic technologist are the everyday challenges she encounters and her “unscripted” patient interactions. As for many of us in healthcare, there is never a dull moment for Jenny. She said she often adopts the role of counselor to her patients. When patients express fear about the possible outcome of their radiologic examination, or when they explain how they received an injury, Jenny has to be a compassionate and good listener.

It’s not all in the books

Jenny also shared the “real world” doesn’t always mesh with what she learned in the classroom. She said critical thinking is a must in her profession, as there are very few patients who are like those described in textbooks. She finds herself constantly adapting to different patients and environments. But her strong understanding of the fundamental, technical factors that go into producing a radiologic image, makes her well-prepared to adapt to the variety in patients and environments.

Jenny has to be on her A-game every day, always focused on what she is doing. The field, according to her, is more than just positioning and taking an image to help a physician diagnose a patient. At its core is administration of radiation, which can damage cells and cause mutations.

When we asked her why she chose to pursue radiologic technology instead of another health profession, Jenny said it was the excitement of being able to see literally see through patients. For Jenny, it is like being Superman with X-ray vision. Jenny’s work helps the rest of the healthcare team — including all the professionals enjoying coffee together that weekend — to deliver the most appropriate and best evidence-based treatment to their patients.