By DAVID GREEN
At that time the 1988 Morenci Area High School graduate had only an associate’s degree in radiography from Jackson Community College.
He enjoyed his work alongside Marlin “Hutch” Hutchison, and right from the start Derrek learned to think for himself.
“There was no one else to fall back on for support in the night when it was just me and the X-ray machine,” he said.
“I always found it interesting that my first job was at the hospital I was born in.”
Morenci Area Hospital provided an important push in Derrek’s career. New technologies were emerging and in use at larger hospitals—CT scans and MRI imaging—and he wanted to be part of that future.
He earned certification in MRI and CT, and that gave him the edge in landing a job at Whitley Memorial Hospital in Columbia City, Ind. Eventually that certification saved his job. Colleagues with a longer work history but fewer skills were facing layoffs.
In 1996 he moved to Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind., and gained some lead responsibilities first on the second shift and then in the primary shift with CT scans. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in management, graduating with honors.
Derrek refers to this as his adrenalin phase—fast-paced with lots of work to do.
Through the years he felt the urge to return to MRI work and he was hired to serve as the second shift lead technologist for the MRI department at the highly regarded Cleveland Clinic. He worked his way up to position of diagnostic imaging specialist. This brought new responsibilities with new cutting-edge equipment.
“I’ve used the analogy that one year at the Clinic is like several years at a smaller institution,” Derrek said. “We have a large number of patients with a wide variety of issues.”
Derrek finds it hard to believe that he’s been at the Clinic since 2001—”times flies when you’re inundated with work,” he says—and his responsibilities have continued to grow.
Cleveland Clinic has long been involved in research, but a few years ago the decision was made to give technologists much more involvement in the process by running research scans.
“Because of the knowledge, skill and aptitude I demonstrated on second shift, I was approached to be one the research technologists,” Derrek said.
It’s been an exciting five years since his career took that turn. Derrek works in the Mellen Center of the Clinic, a building with two top-notch MRI units. The focus of study there is with multiple sclerosis, with some international connections.
“Certain MS patients sign up for drug trials and we do the scans for the analysis centers,” he said. “One thing I really like about the Mellen Center is that patients come back on a regular basis and I get to develop a rapport with them over the years.”
That has both a bright side and a dark side. In some cases, he watches the slowly declining health of a returning patient.
“There are times when the medical field is very inspiring and other times very disheartening,” Derrek said.
A person comes in with a headache and leaves with the knowledge that a tumor is growing inside the skull.
“It’s definitely not for the timid,” he said about his career. “Because of my passion for helping people, I haven’t become jaded.”
In addition to drug trials for multiple sclerosis, Derreck was the primary technologist with FDA testing of a new MRI guided laser treatment for brain tumors.
A probe reaches areas of the brain not accessible through conventional surgery. Bursts from the laser heats an area of the brain to kill the cancer cells.
The MRI scans guide the surgeons through the brain and monitor the results.
In effect, Derrek said, a patient has undergone major brain surgery with a fairly non-invasive approach. They’re walking the next day and discharged a day later.
Other work Derrek is involved with includes tracking chemical metabolites in the brain and running Diffusion Tensor Imaging to map out neural pathways in the brain.
Functional MRI (fMRI) has both clinical and research modes. On a practical level, the scans show the exact location of speech and motor centers in a patient’s brain prior to surgery.
“These centers are relatively in the same spots, but like people, no two brains are alike,” he said.
Tap the fingers and watch an area of the brain light up.
“You might say that we can see what you’re thinking,” Derrek said.
In the research application at Mellen, fMRI is used to track how the brain copes with damage from MS and shows early indications of the disease.
The tool also shows how the brain reacts to traumatic head injury and looks at how forced exercise helps Parkinson Disease patients suppress tremors.
In Derrek’s field, new applications and new equipment are always on the horizon. His fascination with the emerging technology will never cease. There will always be something new to learn as advances in technology continue.
“Somehow I got from Morenci to one of the largest, most prestigious medical facilities in the world,” Derrek said.
He feels like the small-town boy who has done well in the big city.
MRI is an acronym for magnetic resonance imaging.
“We are basically using a strong magnetic field to line up magnetic fields of atoms in the body and using radio waves to produce an image,” explained Derrek Tew.
The magnetic field in the body is lined up, a radio wave is sent out and the signal comes back converted into an image.
What patients experience is a tunnel with a hard table and a machine making a lot of noise during the scanning process.
“What doctors know about the MRI is that it produces some of the most accurate images of anatomy and functions of the human body,” Derrek said. “It has become one of the premier diagnostic tools today.”
An added bonus for patients is that there’s no ionizing radiation involved, as with an X-ray.
It’s the magnetic fields and radio amplifiers being switched off and on that create all the racket.
Derrek says that three or four patients of every 10 get a claustrophobic feeling when entering the MRI chamber. That’s where his sense of humor comes into play.
“I use my humor to break the tension and anticipation that patients have for under going an MRI scan,” he said. “Many times I can get a patient through the procedure without the need of any sedation.”
He has his standard jokes and he frequently comes up with new ones.
His magnetic personality? That’s an old one. All the MRI technicians use that one.
His self-imposed title, the Master of Magnetism? Not bad.
How about this?
“Since my wife and I are both MRI techs, our daughter should be able to point to magnetic north without the aid of a compass.”