21st-Century Technology That Heals

  • By:  Debi Wacker
Alexander's Photography Alexander's Photography

Early last year Debbie Owens entered a “space-age style” facility in Hampton, feeling a bit anxious about a new radiation technology called proton therapy. Will it work for me? Or will I still end up blind, she wondered. Diagnosed with a non-cancerous brain tumor in 2010, Debbie’s treatment options were limited because of the tumor’s proximity to her optic nerve. If left alone, the tumor would grow and strangle her optic nerve, causing blindness. If the radiation treatment was not precise enough, it could still cause blindness due to the radiation itself.

She opted for proton therapy at the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute (HUPTI).

“The most amazing thing is that HUPTI is the largest facility in the world, and it’s in my own backyard,” Debbie said. “The technology is incredible. I was able to drive my kids to school, drive myself back and forth to the treatments, and pick my kids up at the end of the day.”

Debbie finished the proton therapy radiation in June of 2011 and is now on a follow-up schedule. “The tumor itself is still there, but it’s dead tissue which cannot grow. Eventually, my white blood cells will destroy it,” she said.

There’s no avoiding the fact that we rely on technology for just about everything in this day and age. The latter half of the 20th century saw a technology explosion—with such monumental discoveries as the laser, super-computer, artificial heart, and genetic engineering. Today, not only do we see a continuation of this technological innovation, we are, in fact, the gracious beneficiaries of a multitude of technological applications, many designed to promote a healthier quality of life for women.

Here we’ll meet a few local trailblazers who have devoted their lives to improving women’s health care using today’s amazing technology.

Mary Beth Sullivan-Dickey, chief radiation therapist at the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute, was one of its founding mothers. She oversees all daily treatment for patients, initial reviews and evaluations, and treatment design.

Her career began at Massachusetts General Hospital and continued at Harvard, where she completed her formal proton training. Mary Beth then helped open the third proton therapy center in Bloomington, Illinois. She came to HUPTI, the largest center in the world, when it opened in July 2010.

Proton therapy controls and manages cancer using higher than traditional doses of radiation via the power of protons. Damage to healthy tissue and vital organs is significantly reduced. Other benefits of proton therapy for cancer and benign lesion treatment include its non-invasive nature, minimal side effects, and painless, fast treatment. Actual radiation time is only a matter of seconds.

The theory behind proton therapy is the same as it was ten years ago, but the application of the technology has expanded to include more treatment options and protocols. In addition to the current protocols for cancer in breasts, lungs, prostate, and brain tumors, Mary Beth is now managing protocol expansion into esophageal cancer, colorectal cancer, and within the pediatric realm.

“We see a very different type of patient here at HUPTI,” she noted. “Our patients are very educated and researched in the disease process and are looking for the best available care. They come from all over the world.”

And, because the patients stay in the proton therapy center for anywhere from one to nine weeks, the entire care team of physicians, radiation therapists, and “comforteurs” become like family to patients. HUPTI currently treats up to one hundred patients each day.

The entire treatment process is collaborative. Patients consult with a team of care providers, each individual an expert in his/her discipline. The collaborative process continues throughout the patient’s entire stay and through follow-up visits.

Currently no accredited program for proton therapy training exists, so this highly specialized training is conducted one-on-one, on-site at the institute. Once trained, proton radiation therapists join an esteemed team of ground-breaking medical professionals.

“The entire endeavor is truly collaborative—from the forming of this Hampton University team all the way to patient care,” Mary Beth said. “We’ve assembled all the leading proton therapy experts who have been working with this technology and with each other for over twenty years to bring the most up-to-date technology to cancer patients.”
At Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, another local trailblazer is taking medical students into the future using state-of-the art virtual surgery.

Dr. Jody Boggs chose academic medicine as her career because she loves teaching and she loves medical technology. As associate program director and assistant professor of internal medicine, Jody divides her time between EVMS and the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Hampton. In addition, she practices medicine in-hospital with critically ill patients.

“The medical school residents keep us on top of our game here,” commented Jody. “This keeps me excited about the field of internal medicine and focused on the role of technology in improving patient safety and care.”

New tools—like pocket-sized ultra-sound equipment—are replacing stethoscopes and physical exams. These compact devices enable physicians to exam a patient’s heart and other organs right at the bedside. The need for large equipment will go by the wayside, and physicians will have answers at their fingertips. “You can imagine the time savings and improvement in diagnostic accuracy that is possible with this ultra-sound technology,” Jody said. Ultimately, these technological improvements add up to lives saved and better quality of life.

Jody also instructs her students using modeling and simulation, including procedural simulations. Every month, residents rotate through six different stations (procedures) under the guidance of their professors. One procedure might be a “spinal tap” on a simulated patient. Or residents might encounter a “patient” that presents cardiac arrhythmia. Further, EVMS offers “X-Box-like” videos that simulate disaster scenarios for ER and trauma residents.

A third training opportunity for medical students is clinical scenario simulation. Actors in the community are hired to represent fictional patients, complete with various medical histories and family situations. Medical students are required to provide complete documentation and possible diagnoses for the faux patient.

Another technological advent in the medical field is the use of Electronic Medical Records (EMR), which are fast becoming a standard in Hampton Roads. Using the internet, patients can review their own charts at home and communicate online with nurse practitioners and physicians. In addition, EVMS is procuring iPads for their medical residents, enabling them to show patients their chest X-rays, for example, at the bedside.

Even with all the technological breakthroughs, Dr. Boggs advises women to stick to the basics when it comes to their health. Schedule regular wellness visits with your primary care physician and stay up-to-date on your screenings. Make sure you choose a physician you trust.

“Women need someone they have confidence in,” Jody said. “You have to be sure you are getting the best, individualized care possible. I cannot emphasis enough how important it is to choose a physician who is up-to-date on medical literature. Because technology and research are moving so fast, women should make sure they are receiving the benefits of these advancements.”

Dr. Rebecca Britt, an EVMS professor who specializes in surgery, instructs the next generation of surgeons on the newest techniques in surgery using state-of-the-art technology.

She and her colleagues are taking laparoscopic surgery, which debuted in the 1990s, to a new level. An esteemed member of EVMS’s teaching faculty, Dr. Britt is also a practicing surgeon who specializes in complex cases—gall bladder, adrenal, colon cancer, and appendicitis, for example—using an innovative new procedure called single incision surgery. The same operation that used to be done with three to five incisions can now be completed with only one incision, typically through the belly button.

“While the operation is the same on the inside, the technique has changed to one incision, so we’re improving patient safety and cosmetics,” Rebecca said. “Our focus is on making laparoscopic surgery as safe as possible. This is essential when we are taking care of incredibly sick people and rescuing patients from near-death.” Some hospitals are even venturing into “no incision” surgery, Rebecca said, but this is still in the infancy stages.

In addition to the single incision component of modern surgery, patients now enjoy the benefit of improved instrument design. Dr. Britt uses 5-millimeter cameras with the highest available definition quality along with deflectable tips to improve her precision and ability to maneuver during an operation. Other advancements on the horizon in the surgical field include 1-millimeter incision instruments as well as 3-D imaging.

“As with any technology, ten years from now, I’m sure we won’t believe we were performing surgery with instruments ‘so archaic,’” she said with a knowing chuckle.

When she’s not in surgery or seeing patients, Rebecca is immersed with EVMS’ resident and intern students. It is in this educational milieu that technology also abounds. Medical students work with virtual reality simulations and “X Box-like” trainers for procedures as simple as suturing to complex programs for laparoscopic surgical techniques. Students are also exposed to cadaver laboratories.

Rebecca’s teaching work expands beyond students to nurses and other practicing physicians through her leadership role in EVMS’ collaboration with Old Dominion University’s virtual operating room. In this environment, simulations are programmed for catastrophes, advanced instrumentation, and trauma scenarios.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of what I do is mentoring young female medical students,” Rebecca said. Active in the Association of Women Surgeons and president of the Virginia chapter, she conducts seminars about life balance in addition to surgical topics. Balancing the on- and off-call hours with family and personal time continues to be an issue, Rebecca said, and she strives to address all areas of a future female surgeon’s life.

“Women are good surgeons, and many female patients prefer women surgeons,” Rebecca noted. “In addition to high intellect and professional drive, women surgeons offer an empathetic approach to patients before, during, and after surgery.”

The explosion of medical technology continues to create rapid advancements in health care with the ultimate goal of helping people live longer, happier, healthier lives. Fortunately, Hampton Roads’ women can rely on medical professionals, such as Mary Beth Dickey-Sullivan, Dr. Jody Boggs, and Dr. Rebecca Britt, to keep us healthy inside and out.

Debi Wacker is a freelance writer, and owner of LightSource Marketing, a marketing and advertising firm dedicated to helping organizations grow. She lives a healthy life with her husband and three children in Virginia Beach. For information, call 757-647-6603 or visit www.lightsourcemarketing.com.

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