Growing up, Wendy Washam had always had an interest in working in the medical field someday. Out of high school, she landed a job with a local psychiatrist, doing medical billing and coding and office management.
But something was still missing. So the Columbus native took a leap of faith, quit her full-time job, and enrolled at Columbus Technical College to seek an associate degree.
Her chosen profession: Becoming a registered diagnostic medical sonographer or, in more layman's terms, and ultrasound technician.
Not a bad choice at all, considering the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the career field will grow 39 percent, or "much faster than average," through the year 2022. There are more than 110,000 medical sonographers in the U.S., the BLS says, with nearly 43,000 more needed over the coming decade.
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In her job, Washam operates special imaging equipment that uses high-frequency sound waves to take images, or pictures, of babies still in their mother's womb. The goal is to determine if the pregnancy is on track and complication free, or if medical conditions exist that require immediate treatment to correct, if possible.
It just so happens that Washam graduated from school at the same time as her older sister, who became a registered nurse and now works as a surgical technician at Doctors Specialty Hospital.
After graduating with her degree, Washam, 33, went to work as a basic ultrasound technician for a local obstetrics and gynecology office. After about 18 months there, a position opened at Columbus Regional Health's Maternal-Fetal Medicine Center, which focuses on high-risk pregnancies. She is among six high-risk sonographers at the center.
The Maternal-Fetal Medicine Center, in fiscal year 2013 ending last June, saw 8,865 patient visits (not unique patients). Those visits were for counseling and various tests, including ultrasound.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Washam recently to discuss her job, what she looks for when doing ultrasounds, and how emotional it can be. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity. Read the full interview at ledger-enquirer.com.
First, why did you choose sonography as a career?
It's an amazing job. You get to see different people. Every day and every patient is different. And it was just (a fascination with) the miracle of life and getting to help out patients that are a little sicker than others.
Is there a big difference in basic ultrasounds and the high-risk versions?
At a regular (obstetrics) office, it would just be basic measurements. Here we do a level 2. We see patients whose babies may not be growing well, and we see them more frequently. We look at things a little bit more in-depth here.
How many mothers do you see daily on average?
A safe number is at least 10 a day, sometimes more. It just depends on if we have emergency add-ons. If another sonographer gets behind in their room, then I will try to help them out. We all try to be a team.
How long does it take to do an ultrasound?
It just depends on the patient. To do a level 2 ultrasound for a new patient appointment, they're scheduled in a 60-minute slot. And it can take 20 minutes, it can take the whole hour, or it can take a little bit longer. It depends on mom's body habitus (physique) and baby's position. That's a big thing. If the baby's not in a good position, we try to turn mom on her side to get baby to roll so we can see better. But it doesn't always work.
Is the ultrasound process pretty much step by step, no matter the patient?
I try to do each patient in the same order, looking at everything in the same order. That's so I know I've gotten everything. If I see something that I have concerns over, I'll take a couple of extra pictures, then just continue the exam until I've completed the check-off, if you will.
What are common things -- illnesses or defects -- that you look for during an ultrasound examination?
We see patients with pregestational diabetes, gestational diabetes, hypertension, lupus, maternal cardiac issues, seizure disorders. We see advanced maternal age (pregnancies). We see multiple gestations. And when we do ultrasounds, we measure the oblong bones in the body, the tummy, the head, and we get a heart rate. We see a lot of heart defects and abdominal wall defects, like gastroschisis. We see cleft lips, cleft palates, clubbing of the feet, hands, multiple digits, clutched hands. We have some intracranial anatomy (patients) sometimes.
Do you become attached to patients going through a high-risk situation?
I have before. It's hard not to when you're seeing them sometimes on a week-to-week basis and sometimes on a day-to-day basis.
Do visits run the gamut, with smiles and laughs and tears?
Absolutely. I smiled and laughed and cried many tears with patients.
Speaking of the emotional aspect of your job, do you have an example of a moment that touched your heart?
I knew you were going to ask me that. (Her eyes tear up.) I have a patient that had a baby we knew had a chromosomal abnormality and wouldn't survive after birth. But she chose not to terminate and carried the baby to term.
So we saw her regularly and I scanned her, I think, every time she came in. On one of her last visits, I was scanning her and she got real quiet and I asked her what was wrong. And she got really emotional and said, 'This is the last time I'm going to really get to see my baby.' And we just sat there and cried.
Do you see the same patients multiple times rather than have them see another sonographer?
They can request us and, if we're available, we'll see them. Each (sonographer) has their own room, so we try to keep those patients in the same room. That's so we can see them each time they come, if we're here. We do take calls at the hospital also, so some days we're over there scanning patients.
What's the most difficult aspect of your job?
It's hard to find something difficult about a job that you love, so I don't know that I really have an answer.
What's the most rewarding aspect of it?
Having the babies come back to see us. We have a couple of patients that we see on a regular basis and they bring their babies by to see us. I had one today that came by just to drop in and say hello, and 'Here's our baby.'
What skills do you need to be a really good sonographer?
People skills, obviously. You have to be kind-hearted. But at the same time, you have to be able to read somebody ... Sometimes you might have somebody that really wants to talk to the doctor and not talk to the sonographer, if you will.
Other than that, (skills needed are) flexibility, teamwork, ambition and a love for your job, which I do have.
What's the next step up for you? Running a department?
No. We have a head tech and a lead tech. I recently got my NT credential, or certification. It's a measurement you can get behind the baby's neck (to check for a chromosomal marker, like an abnormality.) My next step is to start working on my fetal echo (certification), which is looking at the baby's heart in-depth.
Do you have a desire to be an RN like your sister?
I have humored the idea (laughs), but not anytime soon. Right now I want to focus on my ultrasound career.
Your occupation has job security. Does that factor into your thoughts at all?
Honestly, no. I just knew that I had a passion for it and wanted to do it.
What advice would you have for someone considering the sonography field?
Hmmm ... don't get discouraged. If it's something that you really want, go for it with 150 percent, with everything you've got. It's not always going to be out of the textbooks, but sometimes it is, and it's nice when it is.