Good Medical Sonographers Help Patients Feel at Ease

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Rebecca Burton, medical sonographer
Rebecca Burton loves her work as a diagnostic medical sonographer. She also enjoys vacation time at the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Courtesy Rebecca Burton)

Rebecca Burton works at Enloe Medical Center, a community nonprofit hospital in Chico, California. The 51-year-old spent most of her adult life hopping around from career to career – from office temp jobs to operating a mobile DJ company with her husband. She eventually went back to school to study medical sonography and has been working in the field ever since. "It's been a strange ride, but my only regret is not finding my field sooner," Burton said.

Did you always know you wanted to be a medical sonogographer?

I got into this line of work after a fairly strange and tortuous career path, but part of me was always interested in caregiving – since childhood. I always felt I was too squeamish for nursing or med school. I don't even like watching people get shots. But imaging has always been fascinating to me. I had worked for a year at a medical temp agency when I realized I did not want to pay the sonographers, I wanted to be the sonographer. So I went back to school for two more years, and studied hard.

What’s a typical day like?

At this time, my typical day is a night! I work from 6:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., four days a week. I'm the only sonographer on duty for most of this time, and I spend my time scanning ER patients, inpatients as well as labor and delivery patients. Some nights I never get a break, and even miss my meal break. On others, it is very slow and I see only two or three patients all night. In addition to scanning, I have to transport patients to and from the department or “go portable” to patient rooms, write detailed reports for the reading radiologist for each exam, communicate with ordering doctors, nurses and other staff members, order supplies and stock the department, clean and prepare the exam rooms, keep up with continuing education, both for my licensure and for the hospital requirements. I even prepare slides and paperwork for the next day's biopsies.  

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What I enjoy most about my work is establishing a connection with my patients, and with the other staff members that make up our healthcare team. I really enjoy helping people. I have some absolutely wonderful doctors and nurses that I work with and I am so happy in the facility where I work. 

And least?

What I like the least about my job is finding something terribly wrong or worrisome with a patient, or not being able to provide the needed images because of the limitations of the patient’s body. 

What’s the biggest misconception about diagnostic medical sonographers?

That ultrasound is a fancy tool used for finding out the sex of a baby and looking for twins. We do scan fetuses, but mostly we’re not looking for the sex organs. We are looking for defects that could impact the baby's ability to thrive, and potentially the lives of the whole family. But we also go far beyond just prenatal imaging: Abdominal organs. Vasculature. Sex organs. Brains. Hearts. Joints. We can find out if there's an abscess or hemorrhage under that swelling. If that foreign object has compromised the nearby artery. We guide that biopsy and help doctors drain that fluid collection or insert that IUD. And the field is growing and growing as more uses are imagined and created. It's immensely varied and we are still discovering more uses. 

What do you wish you knew about the job beforehand?

That it's not clean. I had to learn to get over a lot of my squeamishness – surgical procedures and open incisions and draining wounds and more are all part of the job. Sometimes the insides of people can be seen on the outside. The sooner you prepare for it, the better and more effective you can be. Oh, and you will need to learn some physics. If you're afraid of mathematics, you will have a tough time with the schooling.

How did you train to become a sonographer?

Training was two years of intensive ultrasound school, including six months of externship. Then many additional months of studying to pass the boards. And then continuing education, all throughout your career. 

What personality traits or qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?

Compassion, empathy, dedication, commitment to caring. And a strong back and high tolerance for muscle pain.

What are some of the risks and rewards of the work you do?

COVID-19 is a very timely example of the risks all healthcare providers face: We are exposed every day to infectious diseases. Performing ultrasounds also causes very severe wear and tear on the body. No sonographer escapes this field without injury to wrist, shoulder, or back. The rewards? We make a difference. We help people who are in pain or in fear. We help doctors know how to best treat patients. We even play therapist sometimes. People made comfortable and lying comfortably in a dim, quiet room confide in us things they sometimes have trouble saying to others. 

Who would you suggest become a diagnostic medical sonographer?

I would recommend this field to anyone who loves working with all kinds of people, is adaptable, a good communicator, has an eye for detail, is kind and compassionate, and isn't afraid of hard work and lifelong learning.

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