Marti Gabel, an MRI technologist at Winona Health, describes the process of performing an MRI scan on the facility’s massive machine. It is one of 15 different imaging machines at Winona Health.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
In 2019, technology has become a staple in the everyday lives of people across the globe. Even 20 years ago, the idea of carrying around a supercomputer in a pocket-sized package –– with two cameras, no less –– would have been deemed impossible. While home electronics have continued to develop, in other fields, particularly medicine, technological breakthroughs have been in some ways even more astounding. Where doctors once had to cut open a chest to take a look at a body’s inner workings, today, it’s as easy as pushing a button and snapping a photo.
Despite being a community hospital, Winona Health has remained on the forefront of imaging technology over the course of its 125 years. From X-rays to mammograms and MRIs to CT scans, the evolution of imaging has been a long one, but crucial to the growth of the medical field.
Adam Walbrun, imaging manager at Winona Health, described imaging technology as one of the most important aspects of modern health care, even if people don’t immediately realize it. Doctors, of course, can diagnose illnesses and help patients through their care, but without machines to figure out the problem in the first place, their job would be exponentially harder to do.
“Imaging and lab [processes] act as the eyes for the provider,” Walbrun said.
In total, Winona Health is home to more than a dozen different imaging machines, covering everything from mammography to bone density, including room-sized machines that seem ripped from the world of a science-fiction movie.
“There’s so much that people don’t know we do here,” said Marti Gabel, an MRI technologist at the hospital.
Gabel is one of several staff members who run the facility’s MRI machine, which looks like a large, futuristic donut with ambient blue lighting in a ring around the center. The machine, which is coming up on five years old, was a state-of-the-art upgrade for Winona Health, using the latest in MRI technology.
MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, and the machine uses strong magnets to create a magnetic field around a patient using items called coils. The magnetic field, along with other radio waves, produces signals which are then compiled into images, allowing doctors to look inside the human body.
“You can use the MRI to image joints, bones … really, you can image anything,” Gabel said.
Right now, the MRI lab is in the midst of its busiest season, as students make their way back to school and get back into the groove of sports competitions. Sports injuries, Gabel explained, are a common reason patients end up in the MRI room, particularly with Winona Health’s unique coil collection.
“We have dedicated coils for any part of the body at Winona Health,” Gabel said, listing off the names of joints, tendons, and body parts, including one for the jaw. Dedicated coils allow the images to be particularly crisp when compared with flex coils or other variations.
“It’s kind of like a receiver, or an antenna,” Gabel explained. “With a full-body coil, which is how it started, the image resolution just isn’t there.”
The new machine also has another benefit to MRIs of the past –– its size. Walbrun explained that many patients find MRI machines make them feel claustrophobic –– even more so when they are housed in a mobile trailer, which is how many local hospitals operate. When it was upgraded, the machine at Winona Health increased the size of the opening from 56 inches to 71 inches. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, the difference for patients is staggering.
“For people who think they can’t do it, they should give this a shot,” Gabel said.
Imaging as a whole traces back almost as far as Winona Health itself, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. The hospital was founded in 1894, and only a year later, German professor and physicist Wilhelm Rontgen performed the first X-ray scan while experimenting with a cathode ray generator. His wife, Anna Bertha, reportedly exclaimed, “I have seen my death!” the first time she saw an image of her hand.
Since then, imaging technology has become a staple of the medical field. Like other fields, the industrial revolution exploded with progress and development in technological advancements, and medicine was one such benefactor.
For example, the X-ray machines Winona Health has have gone through major changes in the last few decades, and now, the machines are almost entirely digital. According to Walbrun, X-rays began as analog machines –– each image was shot on individual pieces of film, which were then developed, examined, and sent off to practitioners for their records.
Now, the film has been replaced with a sensor, which –– while being notably more expensive than a strip of film –– is both faster and safer than older machines. The dosage of radiation is lower, there’s no more film development, and the images can be seen and sent off in a split second.
“Even other local competitors aren’t entirely digital,” Walbrun said.
The mobile X-ray machine has also been upgraded, explained Tim Metz, the lead CT technologist at the hospital, and the shift to digital for that equipment has been particularly useful.
“In the old days, when you had regular cassettes, you could only do three patients before you had to get more film. Now, you can do 25 of them in a row with no problem,” Metz said. “You don’t lose films anymore, either.”
Another important machine at Winona Health, and the one which has the most recent developments, is the mammogram machine, which is used to detect tumors and other foreign bodies in breast tissue. In the past, mammograms were two-dimensional images, explained Kara Nelsestuen, one of Winona Health’s mammography technologists. But now, three-dimensional imaging has become the primary use of the technology.
“A 2-D mammogram is like if you were looking at it straight through, like the cover of a book. The 3-D image is like opening the book and flipping through the pages,” Nelsestuen said.
According to Nelsestuen, moving to 3-D has helped work through some of the problems of classic 2-D imaging. For example, breast tissue may lump up and overlap, which, in a single image, might look like a tumor. Moving through the breast in slices, however, would show that it’s just a normal development.
Winona Health is one of the few facilities in the region to offer 3-D imaging at no extra charge, Nelsestuen explained, and –– to the joy of women and men everywhere –– the new machine has been upgraded to use a flex-panel, making the usually uncomfortable procedure a bit more tolerable.
There are other changes to imaging technology at Winona Health, including the facility’s CT scanner, and the facility will continue to upgrade and expand in response to technological breakthroughs, Walbrun explained. Most machines have a lifespan of roughly eight to 10 years, at which time they are often phased out for newer and more useful equipment.
“Technology has come so far in just the last five years, and we try to stay on top of it,” Walbrun said.