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GRMC celebrates new linear accelerator

Article and Photos by Mary Alice Murphy

"This new linear accelerator enhances our effort to deliver key quality services to our community," Dan Otero, GRMC chief operations officer, said to the about 50 people gathered to celebrate the ribbon cutting for the hospital's new Varian Trilogy linear accelerator in the cancer center.  "How fortunate we are to have the equipment we do. This Trilogy linear accelerator is the only one in New Mexico."

He said Chief Executive Officer Brian Cunningham, who was not able to attend the ceremony, "handed me this project when I arrived in September. A great team got it done in timely fashion."

He read and thanked a long list of contributors to the project, including Sen. Howie Morales and Rep. Rodolpho "Rudy" Martinez for securing the funding from the state cigarette tax. He also recognized the GRMC Board of Trustees, and Controller Beth Allred, for their help. He acknowledged the help of radiation oncologist Dr. Awish Shah and the commissioning physicist, Dr. Suendra Rustgi. Architect Kevin Robinson and engineer, Brian Fuller, were others named, as were GRMC Maintenance Department employees Ralph Dominguez and Pat Nesbitt. "Our unspoken hero is Mike Torres and his team of the Cancer Center."

"How proud I am to offer this service to the community," Otero concluded.

 Chaplain Bill Holguin blessed the facility. "The completion of this project strengthens our faith. When we look to serve the community, we share God's love. I ask God to bless this linear accelerator. May God's spirit heal those who come here."

Morales said getting the bills through the Legislature took a team effort. He recognized the efforts of the late Sen. Ben Altamirano and the late Rep. Manny Herrera, who were "key to the original funding source." He lauded Susie Trujillo and James Marshall for their efforts during the legislative session where the funding for the linear accelerator was passed. "The true winners are those who will receive treatment here. Nor-Lea Hospital in Lea County will also have funding. We knew we had more funding than we needed, so we partnered with Lea County to also help its hospital."

Morales said Manny Herrera told him, when Herrera was ill, he never realized the services he helped get for the community.

Dr. Shah said the project "has been by far the most seamless transition, I've ever seen. I want to thank the patients for how much they give to us. They are very inspiring and make us work our best. It's hard to give big-city services in a small town, so it's nice to have this technology provided to support patients, who need their care near to their communities and support system."

He explained the machine rotates around the patients and is more precise "to zap the tumor more accurately than before.

The Varian Trilogy linear accelerator weighs four tons, but its movements are precise enough to radiate within ½ mm of precision.

Ciro Chairez, GRMC radiation tech, said the screen shows the overlay where the doctor wants the treatment. To a question from those attending the event, Chairez said the treatment lasts 10 to 20 minutes. 

Dr. Shah noted that the patient lies on a hard surface, and nothing on the rotating machine touches the patient. "This technology allows us to mold and shape images. It is different from the old machine in that it can target tumors better with fewer side effects. This will save a lot of travel time and money for patients. I work with the surgical and chemotherapy oncologists to provide each patient the best treatment. Because of the precision of the machine, we can put more radiation where it is needed."

He said he comes to Silver City one day a week. The linear accelerator is already being used, with seven patients being treated.

"We've been using radiation since the 1880s," Dr. Shah said. "A year after the X-ray was invented, people were using radiation to treat cancer. In those days, they were kind of cowboying it."

Otero said the whole project cost about $2.5 million, with the machine costing about $2.25 million and a quarter of a million for the rest of the project, including expanding the room to allow the machine to rotate property. The linear accelerator is re-calibrated annually, he said.

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