I graduated from high school in Rainier, attended the University of Oregon for half a year and then joined the Navy. I went to boot camp in San Diego and they trained me to be a hospital corpsman. My first duty assignment was in Portsmouth, Virginia and I worked on a medical ward with polio patients and iron lungs. From there, I went back to San Diego to go to the Nuclear Medicine School at the BalboaNavalHospital and that is where my career began. When I returned to civilian life in 1959, I was hired as the first full-time Nuclear Medicine Tech at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland. I moved to San Francisco in 1962 and was the first full-time tech at St. Mary’s Hospital. I returned to Good Sam in 1964 and later I was the first full time tech at Bess KaiserHospital in Portland in 1964 and I worked there until I retired.
I began my Nuclear Medicine training when I was 18 and the field was still in its infancy. I pretty much grew up with the technology that we have today. The scanners when I started cost about $5,000 and were manufactured in a garage in Los Angeles. Today they cost somewhere around a million dollars. Times have changed a great deal and I had a front row seat. Sometimes I feel like I was the Forrest Gump of Nuclear Medicine. In 1964, I took the very first registry exam that was offered for Nuclear Medicine techs and my registry number is 0027. Does any of that make me special? Not really. I think it probably just means that I am old.
Over the years, I made a strong commitment to taking care of my patients as people rather than “diseases with people faces”. My primary responsibility was to obtain a clinically useful study but my personal goal was to take care of patients like you would take care of your friends and family. Most of my patients had major medical problems and I chatted with them while I did their procedures. I used to talk about birds, flowers, public gardens, books, movies, the sex life of the lacewing fly or anything else that seemed appropriate at the time. My lab at Kaiser was on a side hill and we had a bird’s eye view of the oaks, maples and madrones just outside our windows. Madrones have berries in the fall and large mixed flocks made up of robins, varied thrush and cedar waxwings feasted on them. I grew up hearing “that birds of a feather flock together” but larger flocks forage more efficiently and the larger the group, the smaller the individuals risk from the hawks. The birds made a great prop for my stories, but I digress. I also used to sing to my patients and once I got a letter addressed to “Marvin, the singing bone-scanner”.
My boss and I got along pretty well but there were times when he thought we could have gone home a little earlier if I had talked less to my patients. My philosophy was that a 90-minute study takes 90 minutes whether you appear to be in a hurry or if you let your patients know that taking care of them is the most important thing you have to do. Sorry to say, my doc ended up with a brain tumor and he was very nearly in tears when he told me that he never realized how important the caring part of the procedure was until he became the patient. A buddy of mine and I were able to take him out to breakfast on a regular basis before he went to a nursing home. Some say “it’s better to be lucky than to be smart” and I have no reason to doubt that.
I used to assist the docs when they did biopsies. I would set-up for the procedure and then hold hands with the patient and tell them some of my dumb stories while the doc took a small sample of bone from the posterior pelvis. My patter served the purpose of relaxing the patient and it also took some of the pressure off the doctor. One day our patient was a particularly nice young woman and when we were all through, she was kind enough to give me a big hug and then she shook hands with the doctor. After she left the lab, he complained that it wasn’t fair that I got the hug and he had done all the work. I of course, explained to him that I was the one that was nice to her and he had been a real pain in the posterior.
I added an out-of-town patient to my schedule late on a Friday afternoon and her mother was with her. My patient was very uncomfortable and I did my best to talk her through the study. Half way through the scan, I sent her to the restroom and her mother asked me how I could possibly have anything left when I got home. I think that if I erred in what I did, it may have been that I allowed myself too often to run on empty. Some years later that patient’s mother became one of my patients and she said that I might not remember her daughter but she had also been one of my patients. I asked what her name was and after she told me, I described her daughter in considerable detail and I can still visualize what her scan looked like. I could watch the images on the monitor while I sat on my little blue chair and chatted with the patients.
You might wonder why I stayed with a job that was often gut wrenching. One reason is that it needed to be done and I felt that I could probably do a better job of it than the next person. The other reason is that taking care of people in need seemed to “confound the complexities of my own troubles”. Sometimes they asked me for a sneak preview of the results and I would explain to them that I didn’t read the scans, I just took the pictures. One day right after I told somebody that, my doctor came out of his office with a film and said “Marvin, tell me what you think about this scan”. Even though I didn’t read them, I have never passed up an opportunity to share an opinion.
I found that patients that pushed me for information usually had normal scans and the patients that had abnormal scans generally didn’t ask. People who were in trouble seemed to be intuitive about the situation and they functioned on a gut level. For whatever reason, I seemed to be able to communicate with that. I think they knew that in some way, I shared their pain and they accepted me. I met some very wonderful people over the years and I made an attempt to reach out to them but the truth is they were also very supportive of me. They taught me a lot about courage and dignity and that there is only today, and with a little luck, tomorrow.
One of my patients received her chemo in the morning before her scan and she up-chucked while she was out in the waiting room prior to her study. One of the techs in the clinical lab was kind enough to take care of her. The lab tech asked me later how I was able to take care of people that were so sick and I told her that my patients were a lot like sunsets. “You enjoy the beauty while it is and you don’t cry that it isn’t forever”. That worked for her, but sorry to say it wasn’t always that simple. The patients that I got to know the best were the ones that had to keep coming back because of ongoing difficulties. My standard line was that I never invited anybody back but I was always happy to see a friendly face. I had a patient who was in pretty tough shape and we talked about silent movies while I did his scan. He was quite an interesting fellow and he had made a collection of old movies. When we were all done with the procedure, he told me that I reminded him of the boatman in Greek mythology that ferried the dead across the river Styx to Hades, but that I had made the trip far more bearable. That was a heavy duty compliment but it did tell me that what I did had some value.
In looking back, it occurs to me that what I did may have only been important to me and to my patients but I am comfortable with what I did. When you retire, the only thing that you take with you is your retirement package. The bus moves on and you aren’t on it. At this juncture, my old job is no longer relevant, but I am happy to know that I am.