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Women innovators in STEMM

03 August 2016

May Whitaker Medical Physicist

May Whitaker (above) is an innovator. She works for Chris O’Brien Lifehouse a not-for-profit public benevolent institution treating public and private cancer patients.

According to the statistics approximately one in two men and one in three women will get cancer. Lifehouse is a multidisciplinary patient treatment, care, and education facility. It opened in November 2013, in the Sydney suburb of Camperdown, opposite Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) Hospital.

May is the Deputy Director of Medical Physics, here she tells us about her career.

What training have you completed?

I have a degree in physics, a degree in finance, and a Masters in Medical Physics. I am also learning French, and hope to enrol in an MBA soon.

My first job was … working in a fruit and veg shop! In terms of medical physics, my first job was at Liverpool Hospital. I have also worked in Melbourne, and commissioned a linear accelerator in Toowoomba in Queensland.

What do medical physicists do at Lifehouse?

Our role is to support the Radiation Oncology department to ensure patients receive the best treatment delivered safely, accurately and on time. We are the risk managers of Radiation Oncology.

One of the primary functions of our team is to perform quality assurance checks on all the radiation therapy machines (linear accelerators, or “linacs”), to make sure the optical, mechanical, dose and targeting systems are perfectly calibrated. These checks are so important because we’re treating down to a few millimetres; if you’re treating something in the brain you definitely do not want to miss! Many of these quality assurance checks are performed on equipment when the patients aren’t in the department, which translates into a considerable amount of evening and weekend work. We also commission and implement new equipment and techniques, and are responsible for the computerised treatment planning systems.

Another aspect of our work is assisting in the design of bunkers and performing radiation safety checks to make sure no radiation is leaking out, ensuring our patients, visitors and staff, remain safe. We consult with the doctors and radiation therapists on patient treatment plans and we also work directly with patients for treatments like brachytherapy, which involves inserting a sealed radiation source inside the area we want to treat. It’s a very precise technique, delivering the radiation dose exactly where we want it.

To explain to people what I do I … like to talk about the prostate brachytherapy treatments because they’re really interesting. People sometimes squirm when I mention the needles and the probes, but I’m really passionate about the treatments.

Why did you choose this field of work?

When I graduated from physics there wasn’t a lot of work in the field. My first official, post-university job was as a sales representative for an electronics company. Australia was in a recession and my job was to get companies to spend more money. I didn’t feel good about it. I figured I could use my physics knowledge to do something helpful. When the job came up at Liverpool Hospital I jumped at it. So it was my ethos that made me choose this line of work.

What is the hardest part about your job?

Making the call on whether the treatment or equipment is safe for our patients. We’re dealing with intricate radiation treatment plans delivered by complex equipment; many things could potentially go wrong. Ultimately, as risk managers, the decision is ours about whether it’s safe to go ahead and treat with that plan or resume treatment after a breakdown.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The reason I love oncology is we’re actually treating patients, while the other branches of medical physics – like Nuclear Medicine - are more diagnostic. While all branches are equally important, I like the treatment aspect as I feel more proactive.

When I walk around the department I see the loveliest patients. They’re living life as best they can; it’s a lesson learnt.

I also love the problem solving aspect of my work. When you see there’s a quality assurance check that needs to be done and there’s no tool to do it available on the market, you create it yourself. We currently have a student creating a new piece of software to improve the quality of a check for brachytherapy prostate treatments. We’re nearly at the point of testing, and are really excited about its possible widespread application.

What attracted you to working at Lifehouse?

When the department was transferring from RPA I was approached by several other hospitals but I chose to stay at Lifehouse because I felt we had the opportunity to do something different here. I love that we’re a not-for-profit hospital.

One of my goals in the physics team is to make Lifehouse the employer of choice for Radiation Oncology Medical Physicists. Despite living in the basement, we have a great focus on continual improvement, encouraging our staff to advance their knowledge and contribute to advances in the department and the field. We also have a lot of fun along the way, which is very important to me.

My biggest achievement so far…

All the usual things: like publishing papers, presenting at conferences and commissioning new equipment. I love developing new technology and implementing new techniques.

But these are all what I consider day-to-day expectations. For me the biggest achievements are creating customised solutions for unique problems. For example, I created a radiation shield using a contact lens with a tiny piece of lead for a patient’s eye when she was being treated for eye cancer. The shield meant she could retain her sight and continue her art career, and she painted me a pretty little landscape as a thank you.

Has someone in your life been affected by the disease?

My mother had surgery following a cancer diagnosis last year, and is now having chemo here at Lifehouse. It came as a real shock because we don’t have a family history of cancer. It was like I went into dual personality mode: the scientific, logical part of me thought about the treatment process and understood that all was progressing as planned, but the human side said, that’s my mum!

Can you tell us about a particular patient who has had an impact on you?

The patients that have the biggest impact on me are leukaemia patients, because the treatments are so intense, and you end up spending a lot of time together. It’s also one of the few treatment techniques where Medical Physics is directly involved with the patient; we’re usually working behind the scenes, afterhours and weekends, so people don’t often see what we do. During the treatments, I get to know our leukaemia patients quite well and meet their families.

To unwind at the end of the day I …
Watch Game of Thrones and bake cupcakes – red velvet cupcakes are my favourite. I also play the piano.

For more on Lifehouse and to donate, click here.

A career in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) offers a multitude of options for women and men. Vogue Codes is about showcasing careers in technology for women. Come and join Westpac and Vogue in October to see why.

Vogue Codes is on October 14, Barangaroo and October 16, Powerhouse Museum.

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