A trip to the medical imaging lab can stir up fear and concern in even the most well-informed patient. But what if the patient is a child? That's where pediatric radiologic technologists (RTs) step in, exercising a special set of patient-interaction skills that help them get the image they need.
Because they deal with crying infants, antsy toddlers, or otherwise uncooperative or frightened children, pediatric RTs need to employ a higher level of communication, creativity, preparation and objectivity than is typically required for RTs who work with adult patients.
"You either like working with children, or you don't," says Geri Spieler, an RT at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, California. "Children come in various sizes and with various abilities to cooperate. Then there's the emotional side of working with sick kids. It's not for everyone."
X-Rays Through a Child's Eyes
Children are often frightened by X-ray equipment. That's why Fran Stoecker, an RT at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, says age-appropriate communication with the child is critical to taking a clear X-ray.
"You have to give children reassurance," Stoecker says. "Explain to them that the camera is just like mommy's, but it's a lot bigger so it can see inside your body to find out what hurts. Sometimes we talk to them about their favorite cartoon character in order to connect with them."
Jim Almeter, a medical imaging technologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, sees kids with cancer, broken bones and abnormalities like scoliosis. Each case requires a different approach. While scoliosis patients may need help moving around, a child with a broken leg doesn't want to be touched.
"Kids are protective of injured areas," Almeter says. "If you talk to them in a nice, calm voice and help them understand that you are not there to hurt them, then many times they are willing to help you get the X-ray."
Creativity at Work
Spieler says 5-year-olds are too young to understand why they need to stay still while the image is being taken, so pediatric RTs need to be creative in getting pint-sized patients to cooperate. Sometimes getting a good picture means distracting a child with toys or a sing-along. Other times it means using radio-translucent tape to hold little hands still.
Savvy RTs talk to the parents beforehand to find out the child's likes and dislikes. Then they set up the equipment and film in advance. "You want to get the child in and out before they have a chance to realize they are frightened," Spieler says.
The Job's Emotions and Rewards
RTs who have worked in both adult and children's hospitals say that watching ill children struggle and sometimes even die is heart-wrenching.
"It's hard not to get attached to kids who come into radiology on a regular basis," Almeter says. "When I worked in an adult hospital, I didn't get as attached to the patients."
But Almeter and others say the rewards of watching children get healthy far outweigh the stress of witnessing the hardships of those who don't.
Landing a Pediatric RT Job
Pediatric RTs are found mostly in children's hospitals, with a few in the children's wing of traditional hospitals. Ken Gray, director of radiology at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, says finding good pediatric RTs is difficult, because not everyone likes working with kids.
RTs earn mean compensation of about $58,700 a year. But experienced pediatric RTs may earn a little more because of their soft skills, Gray says.
"We do behavior-based interviews and throw out some situations to see how applicants would react," Gray says. "If you are withdrawn in a shell, then as qualified as you may be for the job, you won't do well with children. You need an open personality to work with the kids and the ability to discuss situations with the parents. We want their time there to be a positive experience."