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How Radiologists Save Lives

November 21, 2018

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My Dad flew to California in the spring to meet his grandson, who was 5 months old at the time. One weekday morning, he ventured on a hike alone, while I was at work. He left at 9 a.m. and never came home. This a first hand account of how diagnostic radiologists save lives.

We live at the base of dusty mountain range. Mount San Jacinto rises 10,000 feet above the Coachella Valley floor. The mountains are beautiful, molding the dramatic desert light through the day, but they are dangerous, and sometimes deadly. My husband and I started to worry as it got dark, and Dad still wasn’t home. But he’d been out late before, so we didn’t immediately panic. He called on his flip phone. He could see the lights of town from the mountain, and he thought he could make it down in an hour.

Hours later, Dad called to say that he could see the lights of town, and he might be home in 2 hours. Then he turned his phone off.

Hours after he’d lost the trail, he stumbled down/ across the rocky slope. His poor eyesight betraying him, he fell. Unprepared for a night on the mountainside, he had no food or water. He left a sweater on the bike I lent him that morning, and spent a 40 degree night in short sleeves, crouching for warmth.

He fell many times, trying to make it down. Later, he admitted he may have fallen 20 feet. What would that even feel like in the dark? I shuddered.

By the time he was found and airlifted from the mountain by helicopter, rescue hikers had spent hours trying to locate him, based on his descriptions of where he thought he might be.

He broke multiple ribs against a boulder. The ribs punctured his lung. Muscle breakdown products flowed through his blood, their units measured in thousands.

Yet more serious, he had a small hemorrhage in front of his brainstem. This uncommon type of blood collection could have expanded to compress Dad’s brainstem, killing him. If the problem had gone unnoticed, and Dad had turned or flexed his head, he may not have survived it. It was a subtle finding, but Dr. Henry Jones caught it. A radiologist saved my dad’s life.

What’s a Radiologist?

Many people outside of medicine don’t know what Radiologists do. A Radiologist is a physician who is educated through 4 years of undergraduate study, 4 years of medical school, and 5 years of residency. Most Radiologists specialize further, training an additional 1-3 years. This additional training is called fellowship. As Radiologists, or “rads,” we can see people’s insides. It’s a humbling privilege, fascinating work, and a high stakes enterprise. You need to find everything that could threaten a person’s life, whether in 5 minutes or 5 years. These sometimes ominous discoveries can be buried in hundreds or even thousands of images.

Dr. Jones saves people on a daily basis through this work, but not many of them will ever know it. He diagnoses treatable problems all day, every day, often without receiving credit. I thanked him for making that critical discovery and preventing my father’s premature death. I knew that radiologists save lives, and this time, I got to see it first-hand.

To learn what an interventional radiologist does, check out Small Moments of Greatness.

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