Medical physicist brings skills on vacation

Published 11:04 am Saturday, December 9, 2017

By Davin Eldridge

For the Washington Daily News


For most people, an overseas vacation is a chance to escape the monotony of their careers — a much-needed break from giving presentations, delivering materials or spending time in the sterile urgency of another office.

But for Beaufort County native Stephanie Parker, a two-week trip to Kenya was an opportunity to do all of these things, if only for a day.

“While planning my vacation, I decided to try to incorporate a visit to a radiation oncology center into the itinerary,” Parker, a medical physicist, wrote in a letter recounting the vacation she took this spring with her teenage son Owen. “It was really fun, we had a blast. We saw so much wildlife when we went on safari. We saw a total of seven lions and giraffes crossing the road. We spent four days in a camp with the Massai, met their elders and learned their customs. I went to the hospital at the end of the trip. Overall it was great.”

Parker’s hospital visit was part of a scientist exchange program sponsored by the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, which took her to the Kenyatta National Hospital’s radiation oncology department.

“That’s the kind of person she is,” said Parker’s father, Bobby, the tax assessor for Beaufort County. “She gave more time than she set out to — she’s that passionate.”

That passion lead to her decision to do what she could as an medical physicist in the East African nation.

“I was very proud of her, and for what she did,” her father said. “But she’s always been that way. She’s always wanted to help people — to learn from people.”

In a country plagued by drought and political turmoil, where families of three or more survive on $10 a day, the need for well-equipped and well-trained medical personnel is essential. So the Washington High School graduate was inspired to do what she could by giving a presentation on physics planning and chart checking to hospital staff, basically her role as a medical physicist. In short, anyone who receives radiation therapy is given a treatment plan; part of Parker’s job is to review planning and formulate treatment methods for patients.

“It’s always good to share and exchange practices in that regard,” Parker said. “It’s a constantly changing field.”

She also delivered equipment to the facility donated by AAPM, where she got to meet Rebekah Hezekiah, the first and only female medical physicist in Kenya.

“I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to help the physicists at KNH,” Parker said. The facility was complete with a simulator, a brand new Elekta machine and two Cobalt-60 units — all of which are important hospital equipment Parker said hasn’t been in use in America since the early 1990s.

“They’re good for developing countries,” she said, explaining that such older equipment has its own advantages, particularly in a country where medical resources can be scarce. “They’re simpler, because they’re more reliable. In low-to-middle income countries, that’s not a bad thing.”

After giving rundowns on the equipment she delivered, checking it for damage and calibrating it, she then demonstrated its use to the staff. Parker encouraged the staff to call on her should they need anything. The whole experience was every bit as fulfilling for her as it was humbling, she said, despite it being work-related at a time that’s technically vacation.

“I think, nowadays, when you’re in a profession, work can take over your home life, and your home life can take over your professional life,” said Parker. “I love what I do, I love to, if I can help them.”

Since returning to the United States, Parker remains in contact with her colleagues in Kenya.

“They occasionally send me questions,” she said. “When I’m not able to provide the answer, I bring other physicists into the conversation. I found the entire experience to be enjoyable and rewarding. I hope to maintain a lasting relationship with my new friends in Kenya.”

Parker said her time in Kenya was unforgettable for her and her son — so much, in fact, she plans to go to work again on her next overseas vacation.

“At least I hope to,” she said. “My family would like to go to Peru. So, I’m kind of on the lookout to take some equipment to South America sometime in the next two years.”