Health Matters Blog

The Nuclear Option

By Marcy Rushford

Marcy Rushford

Marcy Rushford

Last month, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital invited the public to learn about the technology we use to evaluate the coronary arteries of the heart and their function, specifically in relation to nuclear cardiac stress tests. Most of the people who participated in the tour were pretty surprised to learn that, by and large, the same technology utilized by large hospitals is available to them right here in town. This includes a hybrid gamma SPECT/CT scanner to perform nuclear medicine tests, which BMH has had for a couple of years now and is housed on the ground floor of the Richards Building.

Some of today’s most exciting advances in medical diagnoses are taking place in this imaging technology field. As we close our observation of National Nuclear Medicine Week it is a good time to look back on its history as well what’s in store for the future.

It was not too long after Henri Becquerel discovered the gamma rays that emitted from uranium in 1896 (first called “radioactivity” by Marie Curie) that scientists began experimenting with its ability to treat cancerous tumors. Initial therapeutic applications in the 1930s were used to treat leukemia patients while experiments with its diagnostic capabilities began in earnest during the 1940s. By 1951, the FDA approved the first radiopharmaceutical, iodide 1-131, for use with thyroid patients.

So what does a Nuclear Medicine test involve? It requires a “radiopharmaceutical” that targets an organ by injecting a small amount of liquid into the bloodstream to evaluate how it functions. The injection material emits a low-level radiation exposure equivalent to what a person would receive during a transcontinental flight from the east coast to the west coast. BMH’s nuclear medicine and MRI units have the American College of Radiology Gold Seal of Approval, an accreditation awarded only to those facilities that undergo a peer-review evaluation and meet the highest level of image quality and patient safety.

Nuclear medicine is unique among imaging modalities in that it looks at the function of an organ or muscle rather than the structure. For instance, with Nuclear Cardiology, we evaluate the function of the heart muscle during exercise and at rest. Cardiologists and radiologists review the study in tandem to assess for abnormalities — this collaboration is unique in New England and ensures patients have the best possible professional interpretation.

Today, nuclear medicine can be used in a myriad of ways. For instance, bone scans performed on athletes can evaluate hidden stress fractures that might not be visible on an x-ray. It is also used to evaluate for osteomyelitis infection affecting diabetics and the prevention of amputation. Nuclear medicine can provide information about the function of most organs in the body, including the brain, thyroid, gallbladder, liver, and lymphatic system. It is commonly used by the physicians in oncology to stage metastatic disease for cancer patients.

Moving forward, the future for nuclear medicine is very promising. New radiopharmaceuticals and diagnostic testing applications have been FDA approved or soon will be. BMH is very excited to work toward introducing these technologies to our community to help improve patient outcomes.

Marcy Rushford, CRA, MBA, RDMS, RT(R,M) is the Director of the Radiology and Cardiology Unit at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. She is one of less than 700 radiology administrators in the U.S. to have passed the Certified Radiology Administrator (CRA) exam, which measures skills and expertise in medical imaging management.