‘Cat’ Scanner Gives Doctors A Peek Into Living Brain

When Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, he opened a new and miraculous world in which scientists could “see” inside a living body.

Today, most medical imaging departments include radiography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear medicine, photo acoustic imaging, ultrasound, echocardiography, breast thermography, computed tomography, and bone densitometry .

But in 1980, a major first was about to arrive at Royal Columbian Hospital – a brand new brain scanner. An article in the Vancouver Sun of February 16, 1980 described the scanner, what it could do, and why it had been ordered in spite of the hospital not having the money to pay for it.

Dr. Ladislav Antonik, Medical Director of RCH, said, “It’s a revolution in medical science. The scanner lets us see inside the body in a way that was impossible before…What it will mean to patients and doctors is obvious. The brain is not given to exploratory surgery, but nothing is hidden from the scanner and surgeons now won’t need to probe in the dark.”

RCH had been promised a brain scanner, but it wasn’t going to be a G.E. 8800 series, which Dr. Antonik declared was the finest money could buy. The provincial government was only prepared to come up with enough money to buy an Ohio Nuclear scanner similar to those installed in some hospitals in interior B.C – about a third of the price. But New Westminster’s hospital at that time handled 20% of all provincial traffic victims – more than any other hospital in BC. The Ohio Nuclear model took two minutes to scan a brain section, while the GE machine did it in 4.8 seconds. It was obvious that the more expensive machine was the one needed, but they were about $172,000 short and the scanner was due in a month. They had some major fundraising to do!

To pay for the scanner, the hospital received about 1,800 individual donations totalling about $176,000 to add to the provincial government’s $165,000 contribution and the Greater Vancouver Regional Hospital District’s $55,000. The hospital district also donated $90,000 toward the cost of the lead-lined room that housed the scanner.

On June 2, 1980, the Vancouver Sun published an article entitled, “Stuffing Ballot Box Helps Buy Scanner”. It described how one resident had borrowed a municipal ballot box and taken it to the BC Penitentiary during its open house to collect donations. “She raised $1,500 in three days,” New Westminster Mayor Muni Evers told the gathering of more than 120 people at the long-awaited official unveiling of RCH’s new computerized brain scanner. “That’s the most legitimate way of stuffing the ballot box.”

The doctors and technicians were eager to put the scanner into operation. The article quoted Dr. Andrew Tan, looking at a series of x-ray negatives taken of patient’s brain. “These will save us a lot of unnecessary surgery,” he said, referring to the prints from the brain scanner. Dr. Tan, who would assist Dr. Ken Kaan in operating the brain scanner, was examining the case of a young patient who had been involved in a car accident. Comatose and showing no movement on the left side, the patient would have had to undergo a cerebral arteriogram for doctors without access to a brain scanner to determine if a blood clot had formed, Dr. Tan said. That would have meant an hour delay in treatment and there would not be the kind of accuracy in locating a clot as there is with a brain scanner, he added. “As you can see by that white area,” he said, pointing to the scanner’s picture, “a large blood clot is pressing against his brain, which explains why he is comatose.”

X-ray technologist Walter Adamus
taking scan of Royal Columbian Hospital patient.
The Columbian August 7, 1980

In a further article on August 7th of that year, The Columbian reported that since its installation in June, the RCH scanner had done 451 examinations and already there was a waiting list. Today, the medical imaging department at RCH performs 23,000 CT scans a year.

In 2010, RCH received a new 256-slice CT Scanner, requiring only a fraction of the radiation dose required by the previous generation of scanners. A scan from head to toe can be acquired in about 10 seconds. This speed can be extremely important for time-critical exams for small children, trauma and areas of the body that move, such as the beating heart. The scanner produces 256 slices of information during each rotation, which takes 0.27 seconds, a far cry from the 4.8 seconds to produce a single slice in 1980.

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