When MRI created excitement in the air

NHS

Dr Adrian Thomas shares his experience of working as a radiologist and how excited he was to see the EMI/CT scanner for the first time. 

 

adrian thomas

Dr Adrian Thomas

In my time as a radiologist I have seen the amazing growth and flowering of radiology. I entered medical school in 1972, which was the year that the CT/EMI scanner was announced by Godfrey Hounsfield and James Ambrose at the BIR Annual Congress; and I started radiology at Hammersmith Hospital in 1981, which coincided with the opening of their MRI scanner. I don’t think that either of these events were connected!

 

picture. 1

X-ray Television at Farnborough Hospital in 1970

When I started medical school everything looked so advanced and exciting to my young eyes. As I look back now it all seems rather primitive. Computers were in their infancy, and imaging was almost all traditional. However, I liked the X-ray departments that I saw, and was taught by Peter Bretland at the Whittington Hospital, and by the great George Simon who was a pioneer chest radiologist. Both were inspirational teachers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Old X-ray cassette, pre-digital

The juniors today will find it difficult to understand how very different things were. As a junior doctor, practising emergency medicine or surgery with only minimal imaging was not easy. Many assumptions were made. So for example, an older person with left iliac fossa pain and fever was assumed to have acute diverticulitis. They were treated with intravenous fluids, antibiotics and a nasogastric tube; a barium enema was then arranged as an outpatient. Many exploratory laparotomies were performed for undiagnosed acute symptoms, and the surgeon had only a limited idea as to what would be found. We had plain films, contrast studies and nuclear medicine, but no CT and only limited access to ultrasound. I can remember patients who would have been managed entirely differently today with modern imaging. In particular, an accurate diagnosis made by CT or ultrasound may preclude the need for invasive surgery.

5 Store for conventional film packets

Store for conventional film packets. Large storage rooms were needed for storing X-ray film packets, with many filing clerks

I was a surgical houseman in 1978-9, and I recollect one particular patient that had done something that you should never do, that is to polish the floor  underneath a carpet. He had come downstairs, and had stepped onto the carpet. The carpet had slid forwards, and he fell backwards hitting himself hard on the occiput. He presented with a severe headache, but no neurological signs. His skull plain film X-ray showed no fracture, and I admitted him for neurological observations. After 24 hours he remained well, but still had his severe headache. The surgical team decided to keep him in  hospital for further observation. We kept him for well over a week, and he remained well although with a persistent headache. We then finally sent him home. I had a phone call some days later from another hospital. My patient had unfortunately died, and the other team wanted to know what we had been doing. I explained what had happened, and the voice on the ‘phone said that this was all very reasonable and we could not be criticised. Today the patient would have been scanned, a potentially treatable lesion could have been found, and this young man could be alive today.

3 Traditional cassette opened to show intensifying screens and film

Traditional cassette opened to show intensifying screens and film

I had first seen the EMI/CT scanner when my consultant took his firm of neurology students to see the new scanner at the National Hospital in Queen Square, where he had clinical sessions. I was fascinated by the images we saw, and the radiologist Ivan Moseley showed us the capability of the scanner. I could feel the excitement in the air, and a knowledge as to how much we could learn about the natural history of various diseases. I was also aware of the excitement in the air when I was at Hammersmith Hospital as a registrar  in Radiology. We were being taught tradition imaging – plain films, barium meals and enemas, and IVPs. I became quite good at TLAs (trans-lumbar aortograms), when a long needle was passed into the prone anaesthetised patient, and contrast injected to show the peripheral vessels. However, whilst I was learning the traditional techniques, Graeme Bydder, from the MRI Unit, used to join us for our lunchtime meetings and show us the recent scans hot off the printer. This was long before the days of digital transfer of images and PACS. I remember being excited by the images of NMR as it was called then, and realising how the neurosciences would be revolutionised.

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Bags of films for reporting. Once a common scene in reporting rooms

Imaging has utterly transformed both the practice of medicine, and also how we look at ourselves. It is all too easy to be cynical about the modern world and whist things may always improve major advances have been made. However, all of these changes were quite unpredictable when the NHS was set up, and it is a major achievement that these new imaging techniques have been introduced. Modern imaging is readily available for our patients, and has transformed untold numbers of lives. Godfrey Hounsfield was always very humbled by the many letters that he received from patients and relatives thanking him for his invention.


About Dr Adrian Thomas

Adrian Thomas is a radiologist, and visiting professor at Canterbury Christ Church University. He has been President of the Radiology Section of the Royal Society of Medicine, and of the British Society for the History of Medicine. He is the Honorary Historian to the British Institute of Radiology. Adrian has written extensively on the history of radiology writing many papers, books and articles. He is currently, with a colleague, writing a biography of the first woman radiologist and woman hospital physicist.  He has had a long-term interest in role development in radiography, and teaches postgraduate radiographers.

 

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