Story last updated at 3:16 p.m. Thursday, October 31, 2002

Supermagnet latest attraction at hospital
by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

photo: news

  Photo by Chris Bernard, Homer News
Registered Technologist Jay I'Nama stands beside the Magnetic Resonance Imager, which is housed in its own self-contained trailer in the parking lot of South Peninsula Hospital.  
Doctors at South Peninsula Hospital are getting a better look at patients these days, thanks to the recent arrival of a new Magnetic Resonance Imager.

MRIs use a superconducting electromagnet to create two- and three-dimensional images of body tissue. Until now, patients had to drive to Soldotna or Anchorage for such a procedure.

"This will be very convenient for patients and for physicians," said hospital administrator Charlie Franz. "We've discussed having an MRI for about three years now, and our big plan was to wait until we could build some new construction and put one inside the hospital."

But the workload grew, and so did the demand for the imager, he said. So Franz began to pursue interim solutions.

What he found was a mobile unit on a five-year lease from a North Dakota company. The lease gives the hospital an opportunity to better gauge the need for the technology in Homer, he said.

"When the lease is over, we will probably pursue the purchase of a new unit for the hospital," he said.

Built in 1996, South Peninsula's MRI occupies its own, self-contained 40-foot trailer. The machine itself takes up the better part of one of the trailer's three rooms. The operator sits at a control panel in an adjacent room, and a third room houses the computers that run the imaging equipment.

Here's how it works:

The concentrated magnetic field created by the MRI is about 20,000 times as powerful as the Earth's own, said Jay I'Nama, a registered technologist who runs the imager.

Bodies are made up of atoms. Each atom has a "magnetic moment," or a known value, he said.

"In a magnetic field, all the 'north poles' of all the atoms will align," he said. "If you put the patient's body in this field, that's what happens -- all of the body's north poles align."

By using specific radio frequencies, the operator can knock those atoms out of alignment to a known angle, he said, like 90 degrees.

"As it relaxes back, we know what radio frequency to listen for, and can listen at different times," I'Nama said. In simple terms, the magnet's coils transmit and receive those frequencies and convert them to digital images.

The operator "listens" by watching the images on a display panel.

The magnet is supercooled by liquid helium, which keeps the coils at absolute zero, or about <>460 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooling pumps can be heard humming both in and outside the trailer, which is parked near the hospital's main entrance.

Inside the imaging room of the trailer, the MRI is a hulking presence that takes up the better part of one wall. In the center of the machine is an 8-foot long cylindrical chamber, or bore, with a 26.5-inch diameter. That means the space is fairly confined.

"The table limit is about 350 pounds," I'Nama said.

The MRI procedure is nonmenacing for patients. It's as simple as changing into a hospital gown with no metal zippers, snaps or rivets, and removing all metal jewelry, and laying on a narrow bed. The bed slides into the machine's bore.

While it can be a bit claustrophobic, it's painless.

"You have to lay still, and that can be a challenge for some people," I'Nama said.

Unlike radiation-based imaging, like X-rays and the CT scan, there are no health risks associated with magnetic resonance imaging. Unless, of course, patients have magnetic metal in their bodies, I'Nama said.

"If you have a pacemaker, we won't put you in there," he said. "Other things we have to watch for are pieces of metal in the eye, or plates or pins in the body."

Results are displayed on a grayscale monitor. Hard copies can be printed out.

They're interpreted by a radiologist, who works with the patients' doctors to help make a diagnosis. The MRI has been connected by network to the Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, which allows doctors here to consult with doctors there.

"This will be used by physicians looking at soft tissue," Franz said. "A CT scan is very good at looking at bony structures. But this focuses on soft tissue, connective tissue, joints, the brain and thyroid issues, things like that."

It will primarily be used to support orthopedic surgeons and diagnose brain injuries or diseases, he said.

South Peninsula's leased unit last was stationed in Phoenix, Ariz., and came to Homer by way of Chicago, where it underwent a full preventative maintenance work-up, Franz said.

"It's very sophisticated technology, and it's going to be an asset to have this here in Homer," I'Nama said.

Chris Bernard can be reached at cbernard@homernews.com

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