Alumni push for cutting-edge local cancer treatment
In December 2021, Chico resident Robert Olea was planning his 91st birthday party. Six months ago, he was planning his funeral.
“The doctors told me I probably wouldn’t see Christmas,” he said of the pancreatic cancer diagnosis he received in May 2021.
As Olea deliberated over speakers and songs for her celebration of life, a doctor at Enloe Cancer Center told her about her newest weapon against disease, the MRIdian Linear Accelerator. The state-of-the-art machine, made possible by a team of Chico State alumni, uses MRI-guided radiation to target and treat tumors and could give Olea a strong chance of survival.
Installed last May, the machine and its cutting-edge technology are extending life in the Upstate and catching the attention of individuals from Oregon to Los Angeles. Enloe Cancer Center senior director of ambulatory operations, Traci Hunt (nursing, 1991), said that as cancer technology improved, the center began to research ways to better respond. to the health needs of the community – the MRIdian provides just that.
“We give people extra opportunities, time and hope,” she said. “I think it’s one of the best jobs you can do.”
Hunt is one of four Chico State alumni at Enloe Medical Center who have been instrumental in his multi-year journey of planning, verifying and testing, and implementing MRIdian. Administrators like Hunt and Director Ehren Hawkins (Health Administration, ’08) researched options including adding a second machine of an advanced radiation therapy system that treats some of the most complex cancers, rather than diversifying with an MRI.
“Buying another one would just mean adding capacity to our system – we could double our patient load, but we can’t do anything new that we couldn’t do before,” Hawkins said.
What sets the MRIdian system apart is that under MRI, the machine visualizes the edges of the tumor and bypasses the radiation dose all around. Precise to the millimeter, it allows treatment with exceptional precision and accuracy. What could potentially be weeks of treatment, along with the nausea, fatigue, or dizziness that comes with the toxins being projected into a larger part of the patient’s body, is reduced to about a week with little or no side effects. .
This innovative approach to medicine is part of what drives Hawkins, a near-lifetime Chico resident whose mother worked as a nurse inspired her career path.
“Being part of the healthcare system that takes care of our community is very important to me,” Hawkins said. “It’s important that I see the mission of giving back to the community in action.”
After Hunt and Hawkins helped research, test and plan for more than a year, Enloe chose the MRIdian as his next tool in the fight against cancer. Almost another year was spent renovating the space before the machine could be installed.
Once there, the next step was to learn all about MRI while training others – a task that Chief Medical Physicist Lonny Trestrail (Computer Science, 2004) took on. Teaching technology became a passion during his undergraduate years as he combined computer programming and engineering with customer support quality assurance for a small software development company. Part of his role was to go into the field to train those who purchased the software in its use, including, at one point, a doctor’s office.
“That’s when my eyes were opened to the world of medical physics,” he said. “I worked with these teams, helping them collect data and conditioning their machines and software. It was constant problem solving and I just loved it.”
When it comes to prepping patients and tracing around tumors, radiation therapist Chris Kuhlman (Food and Nutrition Communication, ’17) has his hands on the dials. Whether it’s warming up the MRI and ensuring quality before beating the beam around tumors, it’s rewarding work for him, especially because of how deeply he connects with his patients.
“Some people who come here don’t have family to interact with through this process,” he said. “We see them daily and are able to provide that care and comfort.”
A native of Southern California, Kuhlman enjoyed the personal touch he received at Chico State as well as the slower pace of work at a Northern California hospital. Here he can really get to know the treated people and share their experiences.
“Getting through tough times like this, connecting with people is so important,” he said. “With everything going on, that connection has been lost. We hug people every day.
Thanks to the MRIdian linear accelerator, Olea was able to celebrate his 91st birthday by enjoying an on-site breakfast with his wife and close friends. He credits the machine for its effective and efficient treatment that saved his life.
“I had no side effects from this whole procedure, no nausea or dizziness,” Olea recalls. “If I hadn’t had this treatment, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Enloe’s history of breakthrough cancer care dates back to the opening of California’s first radiation oncology center north of San Francisco in the basement of the main hospital in 1968. continues today. To date, Enloe Cancer Center has the only MRI in the state north of Los Angeles – a total of three are on the West Coast, 21 in the United States and 48 worldwide.
Hunt, a breast cancer survivor herself, knows firsthand how daunting and uncertain a diagnosis can be for patients, so she is determined to help ease the patient journey. Supporting the availability of the MRIdian to local cancer patients and pushing for even more innovation, she said, has been an incredible career path.
“Looking back on my career, I knew I wanted to become a nurse, but I wasn’t sure where my journey would take me,” Hunt said. “It’s been one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done.”