Era ends in nuclear medicine with Cantrell's retirement

Most of the patients coming to the Department of Nuclear Medicine in Emory Hospital are understandably somewhat apprehensive.

Going for testing that involves imaging technology such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and other technologies implies at least the possibility of a life-threatening medical condition such as cancer or brain tumor.

For the past 34 years J.B. Cantrell, a technician in nuclear medicine, has made that experience easier for patients by creating a warm, friendly atmosphere in which they can relax.

A friendly face

Cantrell, who officially retired Jan. 26 but is staying on part-time through early March, knows how nervous and even frightened some patients can become. "We kind of have to set people at ease with what we're doing," he said, "especially if it's their first time here or they've been told they might have cancer or something. You have to handle them carefully."

Although Emory Hospital's Nuclear Medicine Department no longer serves children, Cantrell remembers when patients from Egleston Children's Hospital used to come to his lab for diagnostic procedures. (Egleston built its own lab about 10 years ago.) "We used to do a lot of children from Egleston, and that was kind of a depressing thing for me," he said. "With adults, when people get to be a certain age, you kind of expect things to go wrong. But with little children, knowing that they've got a problem that's going to take them away is something that I could just never get used to."

Many patients who come to nuclear medicine must return several times for testing, and Cantrell has developed friendships with a number of them. "You get to know some of them pretty well," he said. "Some of the bone cancer patients have to come back for bone scans every three to six months for two to three years or more. The [procedures] that we do can take from 30 to 45 minutes, so you always chat with the patients. You might find out where they live, what they do. And they'll want to know about you, the things you like to do. I really like that kind of thing. I think it's kind of comforting to the them, rather than just not saying anything and handling them like they're just something to be tested."

Since joining the nuclear medicine staff in 1962, Cantrell has become acquainted with some rather high-profile patients, including several members of the Woodruff family, whose legendary philanthropy at Emory is reflected in many buildings bearing the Woodruff name. His most famous patient, however, was the late Academy Award-winning actress Susan Heyward, who came to Emory Hospital for treatment of a brain tumor in the late 1960s and early '70s.

"She was going by her married name of Susan Chalkley when she was here," Cantrell recalled. "We kept it kind of quiet. But nobody really knew who she was. It was a lot like seeing any other patient, but I knew who she was. She was very nice." Heyward made a couple of trips to nuclear medicine during the last few of years of her life, for the initial scan that found her tumor, and then for a scan to confirm its growth.

Keeping pace with technology

Growing up in his native Canton, Ga., Cantrell had no interest in the medical field until he was drafted into the Army and given a number of medical assignments. He was in both Korea and Japan during the Korean War, serving as a medical aid man.

Although Cantrell got a job at Lockheed Aircraft Co. (now Lockheed-Martin) in Marietta, he never lost interest in the medical field. After being laid off from Lockheed, Cantrell enrolled in an X-ray course at Emory Hospital in 1960. After completing the course in 1962, Cantrell joined the hospital staff as an X-ray technician. Shortly thereafter, both the physician in nuclear medicine and the technician left their jobs, and Cantrell was asked to oversee the nuclear medicine lab until a new physician was brought in, a situation that required Cantrell to learn the job as he went along.

Radiologist Joe Izenstark was soon hired as the physician to oversee nuclear medicine. Izenstark was a member of a committee of the American Association of Radiological Technologists (AART) that created the curriculum and certification exam for nuclear medicine technologists. Anxious to advance the hospital's small nuclear medicine program (which was operating under the auspices of the hematology department), Izenstark asked Cantrell and two staff members from Grady and St. Joseph's hospitals to participate in an informal night course to prepare for the AART exam. Cantrell agreed and became the third person in Georgia and 169th in the nation to pass the exam.

When the Society of Nuclear Medicine was formed several years later, Cantrell took the technologist certification exam given by that group.

Working in nuclear medicine for more than three decades has been an experience of learning and relearning, Cantrell said. "We went from doing three or four types of procedures in the early '60s to the 30 to 35 that we do now," he said. "The equipment we used in 1962 is pretty well obsolete now. We were using rectilinear scans back in the '60s and '70s, and now we have all these fancy gamma cameras that are computerized."

Even though Cantrell will soon turn his attention to fishing, gardening and refinishing furniture, he takes a measure of comfort in knowing that the long tradition of nuclear medicine technologists continually helping each other to relearn their jobs will go on.

--Dan Treadaway

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