Five minutes with… May Whitaker | Chris O'Brien Lifehouse
 In OpenHouse News

May Whitaker
Chris O’Brien Lifehouse’s Deputy Director of Medical Physics:

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.

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 it!

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 to make sure the optical, mechanical, dose and targeting systems are perfectly calibrated.

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.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
The reason I love oncology is we’re actually treating patients. 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.

My biggest achievement so far…
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, after hours and weekends, so people don’t often see what we do. During these treatments, I get to know our leukaemia patients quite well and meet their families.

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