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Dallas Students Impacting Nuclear Medicine

This article appeared in the March 6, 2018  issue of thstudent newsletter.

When you speak with Pam Alderman, her love for her students and for nuclear medicine shines through.

“It is very rewarding when you talk to students after they first go to a clinical site,” Pam says. “They come back and they go, ‘Guess what I saw today!’ There’s something really, really rewarding about that.”

The Clinical Coordinator of the nuclear medicine program, Pam is a Houston Community College (HCC) employee. But aside from graduation every May, she spends most of her time in Dallas at Brookhaven College. This satellite location was added to the Houston-based program to address Texas’ growing need for nuclear medicine technologists – a career that pays employees $74,350 after they earn a two-year degree.

“When we first started talking about this second location, I picked up the phone and called the Brookhaven X-ray people. I used to come up to Dallas and do presentations about nuclear medicine for their students,” Pam says. “So I said, ‘Do you have a classroom that doesn’t get used that often and a broom closet that I can call an office?’”

That “broom closet” has been more than enough for Pam and it even houses a few pieces of equipment for students.

Heather Verell, who’s in her first year of the program, says Pam has gone out of her way to collect program equipment or create equipment herself. “There’s an instrument we use called a thyroid probe. It’s this long tube and we put it against a patient’s neck. Pam created one with a pool noodle and I believe some chopsticks and rubber bands. She wanted us to be able to see what she was talking about and practice with it!”

What Is Nuclear Medicine?

Nuclear medicine is a diagnostic tool, like X-ray. However, it looks at the body’s physiology and structure (as opposed to looking at anatomy like X-ray and CT scans do). Working in the field involves conducting various studies on the human body, which is accomplished by injecting specific radioactive materials.

“Students learn how to conduct these studies,” Pam says, “…the radiopharmaceutical that you need, patient prep, that kind of thing. You’re going to basically learn how to identify the study, the pathology you’re going to see and all the different steps to do the study.”

“Instead of CT and X-rays where the patient is emitting X-rays, with nuclear technology, the patients are emitting gamma rays and the cameras are picking it up,” says student Hemisha Bhatpuria, who will graduate from the program in May.

Classroom Structure

When Pam got to Brookhaven, she helped decide how classroom instruction was going to proceed. With some students in Houston and some in Dallas, the best solution was to use Skype. Pam currently splits teaching with four faculty members in Houston. Instructors divide the teaching duties based on content.

“Originally it was a bit of an adjustment because I find that when I teach, I like to get a feel for my audience,” Pam says, explaining that when she is face-to-face with her students at Brookhaven College, she cannot simultaneously make eye contact with her students in Houston. There is no way to read their facial expressions and anticipate questions. It is the responsibility of the student to speak up if there is a need for clarification.   

The long-distance relationship has also been an adjustment for her students.

“The teachers in Houston are really good about making sure we’re understanding what they’re saying,” says Hemisha. “If students in Houston have questions, they’ll repeat it for us, so that we know what’s happening. All the instructors are really good about communication.” 

Clinical Rotations

Each year, the Houston area program has between 25-27 students enrolled, while the Dallas area program (at Brookhaven College) has around 10. The maximum enrollment number is determined by the accrediting body, which looks at factors like clinical sites and the number of procedures and cameras.

Houston has bigger medical centers – like the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center – that can take four or five students apiece, whereas most of the medical centers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area can only take one student at a time.

Students in Dallas have done rotations at Parkland Hospital, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, the Methodist Charlton Medical Center, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Carrollton, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Waxahachie and the Dallas VA Medical Center. Students start their rotations about three weeks into the program. Throughout the semester, Pam makes unannounced visits to each site to see how everything is going.

“Usually a text message ends up going around. I’ll leave one hospital and it’s like, ‘OK, she’s on the prowl. Straighten up and put your lab coat on,’” Pam says, laughing.

Her visits are not only for the students, though. Pam also wants the clinical sites to know she’s always around and available.

“I have enough history – I’ve been in the field for a long time – so the clinical sites know they can pick up the phone and go, ‘OK, we need to talk.’ And I want them to be comfortable enough to do that,’” she says.

While Pam focuses on keeping the schools’ network partners comfortable, the students focus on keeping the patients comfortable. Clinical rotations allow students to further develop their bedside manner along with their nuclear skills. Often doctors will send patients for testing and the patients aren’t sure what to expect or why they even need to have tests done.

“A lot of people will come in and think they’re going to be put in an MRI tube for an hour and that’ll freak people out real quick,” Heather says. “So from the get-go, you’re already having to calm the patient’s nerves just about the test itself.”

In nuclear medicine technology, testing can involve injecting patients with radioactive materials to see how the body is functioning, checking with cancer patients to see if their cancer has returned and putting patients through various stress tests.

“You meet people at their most vulnerable,” says Ann Washington, who will graduate next May. “The little things that you do for these people makes a major difference in their lives. Just smiling at a patient – it’s the little things to get them through the unknown.”

In nuclear medicine, an employee might be with patients for hours. This is much different than an X-ray technologist whose interactions with patients are usually brief and formal – “hello, stand here, hold your breath, goodbye.”

After Graduation

Once the students graduate from the Nuclear Medicine Technology program with their associate degree, they take their certification exams. They’re recommended to take two: the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB).

“Past students have told us that even though the nuclear program is tough and you might not feel ready for the certification tests, this program does a really good job of preparing you and you’ll be fine,” Hemisha says. “If you get through this program, you’ll be fine with the certification tests. Our instructors kind of overprepare you.”

Pam says most of the time, the students coming out of the Nuclear Medicine Technology program get hired in some capacity within the health sciences.

“I’m sort of their cheerleader as much as I am their instructor. I want them to succeed, so I want them to feel like they can come to me if there are any issues at the clinical sites,” she says.

That support has resonated with her students at Brookhaven College.

“I haven’t been in school for a long time, but I also haven’t experienced an instructor like this since high school,” Ann says. “She cares if you get [the material]. It bothers her if you don’t get it. So she’s always available to you.”

The program will graduate its fourth cohort in May.

“I’m tickled that Brookhaven lets the nuclear program live here,” Pam says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity and it has continued to allow students in this area to get a nuclear medicine education. Everything in the program builds on itself.”

Go Further

You can learn more about the Nuclear Medicine Technology program on the Houston Community College website. You’ll notice under “Admission Steps” the option to apply for the Dallas area program at Brookhaven College. Pam Alderman, the clinical coordinator of the nuclear medicine program, is also happy to speak with you and answer any questions. You can call Pam at 972-860-4281 or email