Rebecca Keller, Radiation Oncology, cried. Just briefly, but she did shed tears when the first patient was treated in the new Mayo Clinic Proton Beam Therapy program — Rochester campus in June. She was among 20 people clapping and cheering, while observing the event in the control room.
“I was so nervous to turn the treatment key for the first time, but very ready,” she says. “It was exciting and a relief to get patient treatment underway.”
Drawn to field for patient contact
Keller trained at Mayo School of Health Sciences and has been in radiation therapy at Mayo Clinic for 13 years. She became a lead radiation therapist in the Proton Beam Therapy program — Rochester campus in April.
“I wanted to be part of something that’s groundbreaking,” says Keller about her move to the new program. She says she was initially drawn to radiation therapy because of the patient exposure.
“Initially, I thought I wanted to do OB ultrasound,” she says. “Then, I rotated through radiation therapy during school and immediately decided that was the career for me. You’re with the same patient every day for six weeks or so and become part of their life. You celebrate with them and their family, and they’re so grateful. It’s a unique profession in that way.
“The downside is that when a patient’s radiation therapy journey is done, we lose touch with them unless they come back for a checkup. It’s so wonderful to hear, ‘I’ve been cancer-free for six months.’”
Keller shares a story explaining the effect daily contact with the same patient can have on more than just his or her cancer treatment. “I had a radiation therapy patient who was angry about having cancer,” she says. “I tried to talk to her every day, but she was stoic and didn’t talk to anyone. One day when she was leaving, I stopped her and said, ‘If you need to talk to anyone, we’re here for you — anything at all.’ She broke down and told me her story. She needed someone to reach out to her. It was a special moment to be part of and possible only because I saw her every day for weeks.”
Training in proton beam therapy
Keller and the other nine radiation therapists in the Proton Beam Therapy program — Rochester campus had extensive training by Mayo Clinic’s physicists and the employees of Hitachi, the technology vendor.
“The way we move patients through the program and prepare them for treatment is basically the same as traditional radiation therapy, but the technology is different,” says Keller.
In the months leading up to the start of treating patients, Keller and her fellow radiation therapists simulated proton beam therapy processes and techniques on a plastic phantom (mannequin) and a cadaver.
“Treating a phantom for months is necessary, but monotonous, so it’s exciting to have real patients we can talk to,” says Keller. “We also practiced with mock patients — from check-in and simulation to setting up for treatment — to refine the processes.”
The Proton Beam Therapy program — Arizona campus will begin treating patients in February 2016.