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Putting a stop to paralysis

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The devastating effects of sudden paralysis prompted Beverley Atherton to develop tools to identify those at risk

Imagine the shock of sudden paralysis. Metastatic spinal cord compression paralyses 5-10% of patients with bone cancer almost without warning. Fortunately, new research is being conducted to help prevent patients and their families from having to endure the condition’s devastating repercussions.

Diagnostic research radiographer Beverley Atherton is undertaking some of that research and is proud that her colleagues believe in it, so much so that they have implemented her diagnostic plan at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, where she is based.

Although MSCC is rare, it has serious complications that greatly affect the quality of life of those diagnosed. Ms Atherton describes the difficulty of seeing patients with paralysis, and how the condition can gravely affect everyone involved. Because the symptoms of MSCC are not always immediately apparent, patients and their families often overlook indications of the condition.

Ms Atherton hopes to prevent the occurrence of MSCC by distributing questionnaires for patients to complete during routine visits. She explains that two different questionnaires are used - one to pinpoint early symptoms and another for later symptoms. She explains that they were developed to be as uncomplicated as possible, which helps the team to gather information quickly and efficiently. Patients also have a half-hour consultation as part of the routine visit. Ms Atherton’s hope for engaging in this practice is that patients who are at risk of MSCC can be diagnosed as such before paralysis occurs.

Owing to the fact that she developed many of the questions that are used, Ms Atherton knows the questionnaires very well. Her research was of the utmost importance to her and she says she gained immense satisfaction from getting final approval for the research and finishing the project that became a significant part of her radiography career.

Ms Atherton also hopes her research will develop in the future and lists three main goals to strive for to prevent MSCC; these include having further clinical follow-ups, ensuring a system of identifying patients that are at risk is always used, and developing a way to assess a patient’s risk level.

Ms Atherton says her career as a radiographer at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre implements all her interests in the medical field. When she outlines why she chose the career she did, she explains that she wanted to work with the community, have the ability to do academic work, be able to support others’ research as well as her own and take part in clinical practice.

Her research has been no easy feat but has no doubt been facilitated by her self-professed meticulous nature - she says she has a need to keep her research both tidy and precise.

After more than 20 years in the field of radiography, Ms Atherton has been able to pursue academic work and participate in clinical practice, both of which contribute to her passion for research and working with people. Her role is one of direct patient contact. She says patients often feel more comfortable in the presence of nurses and radiographers than with doctors, and are more likely to be honest with them.

She also describes her career as a radiographer as an “increased and ongoing education” and jokily admits that, while studying and researching, she was able to sit down with her children to do her own homework while they were doing theirs. In that way, she says her research brought them closer together.

Ms Atherton describes her research on MSCC as a task she “cannot put down” until she “has absolutely done [her] best”. She is glad the success of what she has accomplished so far has been made public and says she has received feedback from patients and the press, which has been helpful in increasing MSCC awareness. Excitedly, she goes on to say there is much more to explore in her research, and she looks forward to the rest of her career as the ultimate learning experience.

Dakota Smith

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