X-ray technologists put people first

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

A U.S. Air Force Airman shuffles into the emergency room gripping his thigh, which is radiating with pain, but he is told, “We don’t know what’s wrong and there’s no way we can help you.”

With a furrowed brow, his eyes begin to shift from side to side rapidly. In his shaken state, he questions if there is some way of seeing beneath the surface, maybe a superhero with x-ray vision.

Lucky for him, sending a distress signal wouldn’t be necessary because of the Airmen assigned to the 633rd Surgical Operations Squadron Radiology department at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. They are equipped with the technology needed to provide images that assist doctors in performing diagnosis and giving trusted care to patients in the medical clinic, surgical department and emergency room, 24-hours a day. 

“We have a great radiology team here,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Matthew Knoll, 633rd SGCS diagnostic imaging flight chief, “We have a great combination of knowledge, expertise, ingenuity and motivation. When we get together and have our morning meeting my techs are coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, I think we can do this, maybe we can make this better.’ A lot of it is focused on patient safety or trying to make things better for the customers—they are a really motivated and dedicated group of folks.”

During a patient’s visit to the radiology department, they are brought back to a room, where they are informed of and positioned for their procedure. The decision on the appropriate technique, as far as how much radiation and radiation power to use, is made by the technologist.

The x-ray process takes roughly three seconds; however, back in the day, it was a more lengthy method since the images were not digital and had to be developed, much like a photograph in a dark room.

“When I first joined, we had cassettes and inside of them we had actual film,” explained Knoll, who joined the Air Force in August, 1994. “After exposing the cassettes to x-ray, we would take it to a dark room, feed the film into a machine, then go through two different chemicals and a water wash. The machine would produce an actual hard copy that we would keep in a folder and hang up for the radiologist to look at. All of this time, the patient would wait. Sometimes the radiologist would look at it and not see what he was looking for and we’d have to call the patient back again.”

According to Knoll, this process would add an additional ten minutes to the patient’s visit, per exam. Without today’s technology and an average of 2,000 patients per month, the time for each would add up.

In addition to cutting down the quantity of time it takes to service each patient, current technology also reduces the amount of radiation patients are exposed to.

“Now we have intensifying screens, which turn the x-rays into light before it turns it into an image, which allows you to use a lot less radiation than we did 20 years ago,” said Knoll. “Though we’re very careful about how much radiation we give to our patients—it’s such a minor amount now, people don’t think about it. It’s actually about the same amount as a chest x-ray, if you fly across country and back again. So, we’re down to very small amount, but we’re always trying to make it even less.”

While the digital age improves the speed of the process, it’s the technologists that serve and comfort patients as they are put under the lens in a dark room that echoes the sound of the x-ray machine scanning their body.

“Even with technology, mentorship is still very important,” said Knoll. “You still need to have a good program to link the experienced techs with the new folks, who are coming right out of technical school. The people who are right out of tech school know [knowledge based] answers right off of the top of their heads, but the people who’ve been doing it for several years, know when they position a patient who’s hurting, they can’t put them in the position the text book tells you to—that’s the human life experience and being more than a button pusher.”

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class John Dennis, 633rd SGCS diagnostic imaging technologist, expressed similar sentiments, as he described what drives him to do his job to the best of his ability every day and to continue developing to provide the care to patients.

“Each person in the Air Force plays a part in the mission, and we ensure patients can get the healthcare they need,” said Dennis. “It breaks your heart when you see patients [who are severely injured] and it’s heartwarming to see them recover and be back with their family—it’s very fulfilling.”

Like many comic book heroes, these Airmen use technology to strengthen their capabilities, to help doctors fight the forces of illness and provide quality health care to members who visit the U.S. Air Force Hospital Langley.