Kathryn McGinty - A glimpse at my future career

Our latest guest blog is by Kathryn McGinty a prospective therapeutic radiography student from Doncaster.

After four wonderful years as a stay-at-home mum, I felt it was time to look towards my future and career. I applied to college and here I am, studying level 3 ‘Access to Science and Health’ at Doncaster College. This course is designed to prepare students for a degree in healthcare or science and I have been deliberating which profession I’d like to pursue.

Last month was the very first ‘AHPs’ Day’: a day to appreciate and recognise the people working in the Allied Health Professions. To mark the day, Weston Park Hospital and Sheffield Hallam University collaborated to organise an open day at the radiotherapy department to raise the profile of therapeutic radiography. Intrigued to find out more, I went along.

Until I attended the open day, I had no idea that therapeutic radiographers existed, let alone what they did. That day opened my eyes to a job that combined all my interests and left me wondering how many students miss out on their perfect career because don’t know it’s out there? I wanted to share my experience of that day and my first glimpse of my future career.

I had wondered if the cancer centre might be a depressing place, with so many people dealing with a diagnosis of cancer and coming to terms with treatment. But as I waited in reception, I overheard conversations; not just cancer stories, but everything from weekend outings to The Great British Bake Off, or making arrangements to car share for appointments. I was moved by the wonderful sense of community and togetherness.

I first spent some time in the CT simulator, which is usually the first appointment in the treatment pathway for patients. The radiographers position the patient, then take a highly detailed image of the cancer site which is then used to plan their radiotherapy treatment. Sounds simple, but it’s far from it. There’s a huge array of what’s known as immobilisation equipment, which is fixed to the bed to position the patient. Some of this equipment can be angled or adjusted and there are markers on the bed and the equipment. Once the patient is in position all these are noted so the position can be accurately replicated when the patient has treatment. It really struck me then the attention to detail involved in the job. It was so interesting to see the staff manipulate the equipment, settling for nothing less than perfection, while continually talking to the patient, making sure they were comfortable and reassuring them.

On top of this, it turns out therapeutic radiographers are also tattooists (yes, really!) The only design available is a tiny spot, but it plays a very important role. Another example of precision: the tattoos are used to mark the point where the alignment lasers on the wall in the CT scanner cross on the patients skin. The tattoos are then used to help position the patient each day using alignment lasers in the treatment room. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the CT team – I’ve always been fascinated by human anatomy, so I found it really interesting to see the scan slices on screen just after they’d been taken. It hit home the in-depth knowledge radiographers have.

I then visited a treatment room. It was here I realised just how vital it is that staff be able to quickly build rapport with patients. In the short time in between calling the patient into the room and walking them to the radiotherapy machine, they listened to the patient explain how they were feeling and provided advice on managing various side effects, as well as caring for their emotional needs too; putting them at ease before treatment started. I can honestly say not one patient looked scared or distressed: most were smiling and chatty!

In the treatment room I witnessed the precision with which treatment is done: it’s pretty incredible! Everything in the treatment room matches up to what I saw in CT. On a screen is a list of the immobilisation equipment for the patient, the location it should be on the bed and the length or angle setting it needs to be at. When the patient lays on the bed, there are settings for the bed itself along vertical and horizontal planes, which have to line up with the patient’s tattoos. The tattoos must also line up with the alignment lasers fixed to the wall. Everything needs to be millimetre perfect to ensure the treatment is delivered correctly. The radiographers make tiny adjustments to the bed or to the patient’s position until everything is aligned. To them it seemed second nature, but as an outsider it’s compelling to watch!

I learned and experienced so much in just one day. Seeing the radiographers combining patient care with precision while working with amazing technology was fantastic. I asked some radiographers what they enjoy most about their role and all of them said it was working with patients. I also asked about career progression and found out about radiotherapy review clinics, roles within research, specialising in treatment planning, advanced practice and consultant roles – so plenty to consider after graduation!

Reflecting on my first impressions and concerns that the cancer centre might be depressing, I can safely say I was wrong! In a few hours I witnessed care, compassion, friendship and dedication and when my day was over I left with a smile on my face. It confirmed that it’s exactly the right career for me and has increased my determination to succeed.