Ultrasound sonography careers are more complex than you might expect at first glance. Take the word of Vickie Martin, medical sonographer and Co-Director of the General and Vascular Technology Program at University of Kansas Medical Center (UKMC). “Sonography takes a lot of self-confidence and problem-solving ability. It’s not just taking one picture—it’s knowing how to get the images you need.”
After training in diagnostic radiology, she had a rotation in sonography and fell in love with the work. “You have to look at the anatomy and the pathology, and decide what pictures need to be taken. I liked helping people, and I liked the complexity of the exam.”
In a typical day in her ultrasound sonography career, she spends about 75 percent of her time working directly with patients. “I do breast exams, vascular work, abdomen scans, OB-GYN work. I assist the doctor doing breast biopsies. We do renal Dopplers to look at the artery that supplies blood to the kidneys.”
She most enjoys the difficult exams that challenge her professional skills. “The pancreas is hard to visualize. You have to move the transducer around to locate the organ and determine how the vasculature is connected. After a transplant, we look at the organ to make sure the vascular system is working as it should.”
Martin explains some of the complexities of the ultrasound technology involved. “Sonography uses sound waves, and many people have seen the black and white image. We also use a Doppler system that is in color and can show motion in the body. We split the screen in half, to view a picture on the top half and a wave-form diagram on the bottom. By looking at the signal, we can see how much blood is flowing through an artery.”
In ultrasound sonography careers, the deeper challenges are the human ones. “It’s hard working with patients who have recently gotten bad news. The doctor might come in and tell a patient that we found a mass and want to do a biopsy, and I’m in the room, and then I help with the biopsy itself. I assist the doctor and also stand with the patient, and hold their hand. But the good part is when we can tell people that things are all right, or that something is getting better.”
Part of the sonographer’s responsibility is to get the images that are needed without suggesting to patients whether the news is good or bad. “It can be difficult not to reveal what I’m seeing. I’ve learned not to make any gasps or expressions that would reveal that information. If the patient asks what I’m looking at, I say ‘Let me finish taking my pictures and going over them with the physician, and then we can tell you the results.’”
In addition to working in the hospital, Martin co-directs the KUMC training program for sonography. “We have a 15-month certificate program, and our school is moving to an 18-month program. We require previous radiology training, so people come in with background in physiology, anatomy, those health basics. College programs that don’t require that background are 2-year associate’s degrees, or a 4-year bachelor’s degrees.”
Ultrasound sonography careers are growing rapidly, as sonography techniques become more sophisticated and allow imaging of areas that formerly used radiologic technology. For both patients and technologists, sonography offers a safer alternative.
Martin finds many positives to a ultrasound sonography careers. “Since it’s sound waves, there’s nothing that can harm you. There’s lots of work available, especially in smaller towns. In the past most sonographers were women, but I think that’s changing. Medical ultrasound used to be all about obstetrics, but vascular imaging and heart echo imaging are a larger part of it now. I think it’s becoming more interesting to men. There’s no limitations in this field for anyone.”
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