My morning with a mammography technologist

This post was written by Brittany King, digital content specialist, Parkview Health.

Within the walls of a health care system, people experience a lot of emotions. Fear, joy, sadness, pain, excitement, relief ... They’re all floating around a hospital, all the time. Certainly, our commitment to excellence is centered around state-of-the-art technology and a knowledgeable and talented team. But, because we know exceptional care is about more than that, we are just as committed to combining that technology and talent with a genuine devotion to our patients and their well-being, emotional and physical. We treat the whole person. It’s that unique passion for the patient that makes Kristi Desenberg, mammography technologist, Parkview Warsaw, so special.

I witnessed her compassion firsthand recently, when I spent a morning with Kristi learning about her role and the new 3D mammography technology. Parkview Warsaw is one of a very limited number of locations offering these services in the area.

The 3D mammography produces images of multiple layers of the breast in 1mm sections, providing a more accurate picture, and allowing doctors to detect breast cancer an average of 15 months earlier than with a standard 2D mammogram, which shows a picture of the breast from top to bottom. This technology is vital in an age when 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. With early detection, the 5-year survival rate is almost 100 percent. In addition to these benefits, offering 3D mammography services also reduces the number of unnecessary callbacks by 40 percent, relieving more women of unwarranted worry.

When I arrived that morning, Kristi was already with a patient. The first thing I noticed about her – the first thing I imagine most people notice about Kristi – was her warm smile. It’s the kind of smile that invites you in. Next, I picked up on her energy. She had a bounce in her step, and I could hear her laughing with her patient all the way down the hall. It was easy to see how she could easily build a rapport with both patients and co-workers. As we walked and talked, she explained, “Patients tend to be nervous and uncomfortable when they come in. It’s our job to reassure them and make sure that they know that they’re getting the best care from us and from the doctors.”

A door from the main hallway opens into a small waiting area between several rooms. One room houses the DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) scanner, a machine that measures soft tissue and bone. Another room is dedicated to mammograms, and one contains ultrasound equipment. There’s also a room toward the back where women can change in private. The setup of this area was very purposeful, designed so that women who are referred from a mammogram to an ultrasound can have it done the same day, without having to “run all over the place,” as Kristi put it. I saw this put into practice, when a woman who came in for a diagnostic screening was referred for an ultrasound. She was able to wait in the comfort of this private space, under Kristi’s attentive care, from start to finish. It was an example of patient-centered processes, every step of the way.

Kristi works closely with Lauren Sprunger, a mammography technologist who’s been in the field for about one year. They’re a dynamic duo. “I get to learn from all of Kristi’s experience,” Lauren said. (Kristi has been performing mammograms for 15 years.) “And I get to learn from Lauren’s fresh eyes and education,” Kristi added. They leaned on each other throughout my time with them, and that mutual respect was evident in each and every interaction.

Most women will tell you that getting a mammogram is an uncomfortable experience. They might feel exposed, unsure and usually a little nervous. Even when coming in for a routine screening, there’s always a small fear that the technologist will find something of concern. It’s an aspect of the process the team is sensitive to, and, as an observer, I was as well.

The first woman I met was there for a follow-up after a screening the previous week showed a few suspicious areas in the breast. Even though I had the patient’s consent to be there, I quietly tucked myself into a corner of the room, trying to be as discrete as possible. Vulnerability swallowed the energy in the air for a brief span of time, maybe a few heartbeats. And then, I began to understand how someone as warm and kind as Kristi could make such a substantial difference for someone in this situation.

The patient remembered Kristi from her prior appointment, and seemed to relax as they chatted. Kristi pulled up her previous images and they sat together, looking at the computer screen and going over which areas she was going to be focusing on. With every question Kristi answered, every smile, the vulnerability seemed to dissipate a little bit more. I knew she had a list of patients to see and paperwork to complete, but she didn’t act like it. She explained what was happening with the machine, and continued to carry on the conversation as she positioned the woman for screening. With each new position, Kristi assumed the role of motivational coach. “You’re doing great!” she encouraged, as she quickly snapped the pictures. “Almost done!” And, “I’m going quickly!” when the positions seemed to be less comfortable.

Kristi sent the images to the patient’s doctor, who would look at them and then call to discuss next steps. While the team waited for that call, the patient was invited to sit in the lobby, where it’s a little more comfortable. Kristi offered her a drink and a snack. When the woman requested coffee, Kristi didn’t hesitate, making a quick trip down to the cafe to grab her a cup. “Our patients are our No. 1 priority,” she said. “We get so intimate with them. We do whatever we can to gain their trust and make sure they know that they are in good hands. It’s so important. We take this responsibility very seriously.”

After the doctor viewed the images, he let Kristi know he was ready to speak with the patient. She called the woman back into the room, and sat next to her during the phone call, giving that warm, reassuring smile. This time, the diagnostic screening showed nothing of concern. There was the type of genuine laughter that often accompanies such relief, and the woman eventually excused herself to change. When she came back out, Kristi handed her a rose from a vase on the counter, and walked her back to the front of the building.

As the morning passed, I watched this thoughtful process repeated. Through both regular screenings and diagnostics, Kristi never failed to make a woman smile and find ease. From complimenting earrings to talking about fitness trackers, she masterfully kept the conversation going until, patient after patient, the women relaxed. When the situation called for it, Kristi was engaging and playful. And when the news was less positive, she sat with them through their tears.

“Is it hard?” I asked. “I don’t know if I could do what you do — sitting with people as they get what could potentially be the scariest news of their lives.”

“It’s hard sometimes,” Kristi shared. “But we do everything we can to catch cancer when it’s most treatable, and I try to focus on that. It’s really important.”

“Do you wonder about them after they leave?” I asked.

“Sometimes, if I have someone who’s been on my mind for a while, I’ll send them a note to let them know I’m thinking about them, or I’ll give them a call and follow up to see how they’re doing,” she said.

As I wrapped up my time in Warsaw, I left with a new appreciation for the role played by every person in a health care system. We often think about doctors, surgeons or nurses working in the hospital and the incredible ways they impact lives. But what I saw that late September morning opened my eyes to the incredible impact of one mammography technologist, in a quiet room, tucked inside a large building, making a woman smile so she doesn't feel afraid. That’s the difference at Parkview. Yes, the technology is impressive, but perhaps even more impressive are the people behind it. And that's what it's all about.



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