|Author: Anne Baublitz|
|Living Her Dream, Loving Her Job
|For Shannon Dingus, R.T.®(T), her career as a radiation therapist is about more than simply showing up at work and going through the motions of her job. Every day, she shares her enthusiasm and passion for her work with not only her colleagues, but with the patients she treats at Yale New Haven Hospital as well. And, she also passes on this love for her job to the students she trains in radiation therapy. Hoping to educate and inspire others, Dingus approaches each day knowing that her work makes a difference in her patients' lives.
While taking some time to decide what she wanted to do with her life, Dingus spoke with a family member who had already worked in the radiation therapy department at nearby St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport and liked what she heard. "After going on an interview for the program and after learning more about what the job would entail, I knew it was what I wanted to do," she says. She went on to earn her associate's degree in science through the Gateway Community College's Radiation Therapy Program, with all of her clinical training done at Yale, Norwalk, St. Vincent's, St. Mary's and St. Rafael's Hospitals.
Dingus describes the Yale New Haven Hospital as an average-sized facility. Naming some of the equipment she uses most frequently, Dingus says the radiation therapy department includes one CT simulator, one Varian Simulator, three Varian Linacs, one orthovoltage unit and one high dose rate brachytherapy unit. Explaining that the department strives toward excellence by incorporating cutting-edge technology and equipment with patient care and satisfaction, Dingus says, "We offer many specialty treatments like intensity modulated radiation therapy, prone breast setups, total body irradiation and total skin electron therapy."
On any given day, Dingus may be seen performing a variety of tasks and using several different pieces of equipment. Her duties range from being responsible for simulating, treating and scheduling to preparing billing and working on computer verification and programming. Also, just as her responsibilities change from day to day, so do the number of patients with whom she interacts. Some days, she may see five patients, and another day, the number may be closer to 35. Although several conditions can be treated with radiation, Dingus explains that the majority of the patients she works with have some form of cancer. "The most common diseases we see are the more common forms of cancer like breast, lung and prostate," she says. Therefore, the procedures she performs most often are ones in conjunction with treating those cancers.
Additionally, since Yale New Haven Hospital is also a teaching facility, Dingus and the other radiation therapists are also responsible for training and observing the students as well. Each year, between six and 12 students come to the hospital to receive hands-on training; "The students training at Yale and at Gateway Community College have an intense two-year program," Dingus explains. "The first year, they have classes at the college three days a week and hospital rotations two days a week. In the second year, this schedule is reversed. Over summer and college breaks, they are training at the hospital Monday through Friday 40 hours a week. When they are at the hospital, they are on treatment units with the therapists, and we teach them all of their ‘hands-on' training."
Although some students Dingus works with are right out of school and others have a more extensive medical background, she explains that it is the therapist's job to teach the students everything they need to know about treating a patient from start to finish. That way, by the time the students graduate, they should be able to treat any disease both efficiently and accurately. Assisting students gives Dingus a change of pace from working with the patients, and she appreciates this variety, saying, "I really love what I do, and I enjoy teaching the students."
Dingus advises students who are considering a career in radiation therapy to ask themselves whether they are capable of not only physically performing the work, but also if they are able to emotionally handle the job as well. But, more importantly, she also urges them to consider whether or not they truly enjoy what they are doing. "These patients deserve meticulously accurate treatment as well as constant emotional support," she says, "and they deserve it all from a therapist who ‘wants' to be there helping them. If it isn't something that you truly enjoy, this is a very difficult job to do." Despite these warnings, Dingus also shares with students how fulfilling it can be to work in a job you enjoy and also believe in whole-heartedly. "If you find that this is the career for you," she says, "it can be the most rewarding and satisfying job you will ever have."
Although she balances hands-on patient care and imaging with her teaching responsibilities, Dingus admits that can make for a pretty tight schedule sometimes. In the future, she may opt to spend more time teaching and working with the students, but she realizes what sacrifices accompany that decision. "I may consider getting more involved in teaching someday," she says, "but that would involve distancing myself from the patients, and I'm not willing to do that right now."
For Dingus, the most challenging part of her work as a radiation therapist is not a medical obstacle to overcome or a new piece of technology to master; rather, it is dealing with her own personal emotions. "My greatest challenge, personally, is accepting that I can't always help my patients," she says. She continues, explaining, "that is very difficult for me at times. It means a lot to me to know that I can make a difference in people's lives." Although she is a professional and realizes the dangers of becoming too emotionally attached to her work, Dingus also knows that sometimes, emotions cannot help but play a part in medicine. The most difficult scenarios are when children are involved, she says, "The part of my job that I dislike the most is seeing children sick, in pain or dying. That is something that no matter how long I do this job, I will never be able to adjust to." However, Dingus also realizes that sometimes, just interacting with medical professionals is enough to restore patients' hopes or ease their jittery nerves, and this interaction in itself is sometimes better than even the strongest prescription a doctor can provide. "Whether we are able to help people or not, we are always able to impact their lives in some way," she says, "and sometimes, that is the most important thing we can do for them."
Since learning how to deal with one's emotions is not part of any classroom curriculum or university repertoire, Dingus explains that this intangible skill is something that can only be mastered with on-the-job experience and with hands-on patient interaction. Although dealing with emotions is such a large part of the job, she explains that this aspect can sometimes be unexpected as well. "Surprisingly enough, it is not always sad and depressing," she says. Recalling some of the patients she has worked with in the past, she elaborates, "As a matter of fact, I have seen more courage, happiness, strength and general appreciation for life in my job than in any other aspect of my life. The patients have actually taught me a lot about being grateful and appreciative for things that most people take for granted everyday. They are extremely inspirational, and their positive attitudes are amazing."
No matter how many patients radiation therapists work with or how many different pieces of equipment they use in the lab or hospital, Dingus believes one goal is always consistent across the board: preparing the most accurate information as possible. She explains, "I think that accuracy is always our main concern. This can range from ‘human errors' like inputting errors, which are drastically being reduced by constantly-evolving computer equipment, to patient positioning errors, like patients moving, which are being compensated for with new positioning devices and more technologically advanced equipment."
"Unfortunately," says Dingus, "a lot of the radiation therapy failures are due to our inability to deliver high enough doses without causing damage to normal tissue and organs. The changes I have seen, and the ones I think we will continue to see, will involve immobilizing the patients more efficiently, because the less they move, the more accurate the treatment will be."
According to Dingus, since technology is constantly changing, so is the radiation therapist's role. "Computers have become a large part of what we do," she says. "Systems are constantly being developed to make treatments more accurate and more tolerable for the patients." Thanks to these advances in computers and in other technology fields, some of these accuracy concerns can be laid to rest, and Dingus hopes to see even more technological progress in the future so radiation therapists can continue to provide the clearest and most helpful results for both medical professionals and their patients. "The main goal of radiation therapy—delivering as high of doses of radiation as the body can tolerate to control the disease—hasn't really changed over the years," she explains. However, determining the correct levels of radiation to achieve this goal is the tricky part. In the future, Dingus hopes to see improvements in technology that will involve treating less normal tissues, thereby also reducing patients' side effects and negative reactions to the radiation. "Hopefully," she says, "by constantly improving on these areas, we will be able to improve on success. Obviously, I would be ecstatic if researchers could start finding cures for all of the diseases we see—that would be the ultimate advancement!"
Shannon Dingus, R.T.®(T), received her associate's degree in Science from Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut in 1992. She then went on to become board certified and licensed in Radiation Therapy. For the last seven years, she has worked at Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut as a radiation therapist.
Anne Baublitz is a freelance writer from Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. She is on the editorial staff of NEWS-Line for Radiology Professionals.