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Radiation therapy students benefit from new linear accelerator simulator

One of St. Catharine College’s newest programs has exciting new technology that will give students a distinct advantage over students in similar programs at other colleges and universities.

The radiation therapy program at St. Catharine College, which enrolled its first cohort in January 2013, recently obtained a linear accelerator simulator through a grant from Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Ky. A linear accelerator is the primary tool used when administering radiation therapy to a cancer patient.

The simulator, created by a company called VERTUAL, arrived shortly before the fall semester began at

St. Catharine College. The technology is referred to as the VERT. The company that created it, VERTUAL, works in conjunction with a company called Virtalis. Both companies are based out of Great Britain.

Carol Scherbak, assistant professor / chair of the radiation therapy department, said an engineer at Virtalis set up a room plan so the VERT could be installed. After three days, the equipment was in place. Then, a few days before classes began, Dr. Andy Beavis, who is the co-founder and co-inventor of the VERT, came to campus from Great Britain to train Scherbak and Tom Rally, instructor / clinical coordinator of radiation therapy, on how to use the machine.

Scherbak used an analogy to describe training using the VERT and training without it.

She said training to use a linear accelerator without the VERT is akin to describing to someone the rules of basketball and explaining how to dribble, pass and shoot without using a ball. Then, after explaining how the games works,  the student is sent to start for one of the most highly-regarded college or pro basketball teams in the country a few days later.

"You don’t even get a practice game. You don’t even get to play with the ball," Scherbak said of training to use a linear accelerator. "You’re just thrown in there. You don’t know the people. You don’t even know how the clinic is set up."

Rally said that’s an accurate analogy and took it a step further.

Even training in a hospital with a real linear accelerator and no patient on the table is not as comprehensive as training with the VERT.

"Still, it’s just a dry run of everything until you’re thrown on the floor," Rally said. "You’re out there trying to learn how to do it and there’s a sick patient lying on the table. All of a sudden, there’s not time for you to learn. That patient’s hurting, they’re getting sick to the stomach. The pressure is on you."

The VERT, though, adds a new layer of learning.

"This is a live game with no live people," Rally said.

Using the VERT provides more information than the student could see even with a patient lying on the table receiving treatment.\

"How much more information is (used in the VERT) than if you just saw a sick patient laying on the table? You can see the lungs, you can see the spinal cord, you can see what the radiation is hitting," Rally said.

Scherbak explained that even a stripped down linear accelerator costs around $2 million, so obtaining one for training purposes isn’t practical. The linear accelerator that appears in the VERT is roughly a $3 million machine, Scherbak said.

"So now our students can take this and become proficient in using this," she said. "You can imagine how difficult it would be. You can imagine if now you’re in a scenario and you’re in a room with a couple of therapists you don’t even know and an actual patient on the table. Now you have to perform."

Using the VERT allows radiation therapy students to learn in a safe environment, which includes safety from destroying expensive equipment.

"None of my students have ever done anything like this, but I have heard of students running the gantry into the stepstool. That’s $13,000," she said. "This hand pendant, just the hand pendant itself is $1,500. If we drop this, it’s $1,500."

The linear accelerator at St. Catharine College is 3-D, she said, so there’s no worry about damaging it.

Another advantage training with the VERT has is the ability to correlate several pieces of information together to get a more complete picture of the patient.

"We can correlate the organs. We can correlate this CT scan we did to see what’s actually going on to the point where we can then look at this nice CT scan and we can actually look at the dose," Scherbak said.

"The only thing the students cannot do is touch the patients with their hands. Other than that, they can do everything," Scherbak said.

For more information about the radiation therapy program, contact Scherbak via email at carolscherbak@sccky.edu or via phone at (859) 336-5082 ext. 1399.

Founded in the Dominican tradition in 1931 and sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Peace, St. Catharine College, a Catholic Dominican college inspired by its founders, welcomes all to the challenging pursuit of truth, preparing them to become critical thinkers, ethical leaders and engaged citizens.

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