Protect your thyroid
I got sick after decades of taking radiographs as a veterinary technician. Learn from my mistakes. Protect yourself.
I'll never forget the first time I was allowed to take radiographs. I was 18 years old and wanted to get into veterinary technology school. When the veterinary technician had me put on the lead apron for the first time, I felt the responsibility. I tied myself in and held the pet on the table the way she told me. She pressed the pedal down, and I heard a loud noise. That was it-the X-ray was done.
We both squeezed into a little dark room while she explained dipping the films in developer and fixer. I'll never forget that chemical smell and the fact that were no ventilation in that room. Then we hung the films to dry. I was so proud to move on to the next level of my training and to become a veterinary technician.
Little did I know that for years, no one was looking out for me-or my thyroid. No one was explaining the dangers of what can happen to my thyroid with constant radiation exposure. I did finish school, and I did become a registered veterinary technician in Ohio. We did briefly skim over radiation safety. We were also told that this was low-level radiation. We had radiation badges, but they weren't emphasized. In fact, when we went to clinicals, we didn't take them with us, so I don't remember how our radiation was monitored during internships.
‘You were criticized if you ever dared to reach for a glove'
In my first job as an RVT, the manager told me I would get a badge eventually. Just take the X-rays, I was told, and they would order me one. I don't know if they ever did order me one, because I never saw it. I also never wore a badge. I tried to wear gloves, because I remember in school the awful pictures of people who didn't wear gloves and their hands becoming disfigured. Holding wiggly pets with gloves was a challenge. I was told to take off the gloves so I could better keep the pet still. There were no thyroid collars to be found.
Later, I moved on to a specialty and emergency facility with all the advanced machines and monitors. This practice had specialty veterinarians and an MRI machine. We did get X-ray badges at this facility. They were all lined up nicely on the wall as you walked into the big area where they take X-rays.
There was no door and no way to let anyone know when someone was taking X-rays. Someone just had to yell, “Shooting!” before hitting the pedal. No one ever bothered to move those badges. They always stayed in perfect alphabetical order. Thyroid collars were still unheard of, and you were criticized if you ever dared to reach for a glove. Some veterinarians didn't like how we positioned the pets on the table, and they would walk in and hold them how they liked it. We would tell them to leave, but they had us shoot the film anyway. They said it's not enough radiation to do anything. Some stood behind those wearing lead aprons, thinking this was all the protection they needed. Looking back at how unsafe that was, I never would have hit that pedal.
The next clinic I worked at was another fast-paced small animal practice. This radiology room actually had doors. They did have badges, but we never saw them. They weren't even displayed all the time. Sometimes they were there, sometimes they weren't. I never saw a thyroid collar, and the gloves looked as perfect as the day they were purchased years before.
‘I followed his rules-most of the time'
At another practice, it was mandatory that all radiographs be taken with thyroid collar, gloves and gown. Badges were worn at all times throughout the hospital-you put them on when you started that day and took them off when you left. The management posted radiation levels every month.
I was shocked. It seemed overboard to me. I didn't understand why this veterinarian was going to extremes about X-rays. I followed his rules-most of the time. I scoffed at his being overly cautious. If I didn't get the perfect view, I blamed him for making me wear the stupid gloves.
If I could pass one message onto veterinary assistants, technicians and future technicians, it's this: Please take the lead seriously. Wear it! Wear your badges!
Then I started to see my radiation number increase. I knew those little badges actually meant something. I wondered how much radiation exposure I had over my entire veterinary career. I didn't know I was supposed to have my radiation company contact my old employer to transfer information to a new employer.
For more than 15 years, I worked two jobs, in general practice and in emergency. I easily took 30-plus X-rays a day, each patient getting a minimum of three views. Add on additional films because patients moved or the veterinarian wanted more views. Trauma patients would get three for the abdomen, three for the thorax, plus extremities and pelvis views. Some shifts I just left on the apron for hours because I was taking so many.
I got thyroid cancer
Now, with 24 years of taking X-rays, I wish I had taken radiation safety more seriously. I've had a full thyroidectomy due to thyroid cancer. Nineteen lymph nodes were positive for cancer and it spread to the left side of my chest. I don't have a family history of thyroid disease or any other medical explanation. My doctors have concluded that it's work-related from years of taking radiographs without the proper protection or monitoring.
If I could pass one message onto veterinary assistants, technicians and future technicians, it's this: Please take the lead seriously. Wear it! Wear your badges! Transfer your radiation numbers. That number should follow you your whole career. Just because you change jobs doesn't erase all your radiation exposure. If employers don't want to work with you, then fight for yourself. Stand up for your health and your future!
I don't blame my past employers. It was a different time. Recently, I heard about an office manager telling a new employee to use another employee's badge until her X-ray badge came in. I refused to let her take a single X-ray, and I told her to refuse. I'm more educated now, and I spread this to fellow co-workers. We must protect ourselves, and each other.
Know your rights. Stand up for yourself. Don't be the only veterinary team member taking radiographs all night. Keep track of how many you take per shift and demand equal radiation exposure to all. You must be your biggest advocate, because when you're going through cancer treatment, past employers and veterinarians won't be there holding your hand.
Naomi Strollo, RVT, is Fear Free Certified and has been working in the veterinary field for more than 24 years. She practices emergency medicine and is a freelance writer. She also has a special interest in dog training, which enables her Akita, her pit bull and her Shiba Inu to all reside happily together.