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Scarlett Szymanski
Scarlett Szymanski
Education: Gwynedd-Mercy College
Occupation: Radiation Therapist, St. Peter's University Hospital, New Brunswick

Scarlett Szymanski

When people talk about a career in health care, the jobs that immediately come to mind are doctor, nurse, maybe physician's assistant. But health care-related professions are as plentiful as thermometers in the ER. It takes a lot of different professionals to run a hospital and care for patients.

Scarlett Szymanski, the manager of radiation oncology at St. Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, is the perfect example. Szymanski started her career some 20 years ago in Pennsylvania, as a radiation therapist, which is a kind of X-ray technician.

"A radiology technologist is generally a first step, and in New Jersey it requires a two-year program," explains Scarlett, 39. "In this position, you're responsible for taking X-rays of patients. Then you can go on for a one-year program for a radiation therapy certificate. The coursework covers physics, anatomy, radiation and on-the-job clinical training. When you're done, you can remain at this level or take more exams to move on up the ladder."

A radiation therapist (the titles may be different from one hospital to the next), must deliver the proper, doctor-prescribed dose of cancer-fighting radiation to patients using a linear accelerator or other high-tech machine. You'll seat the patient, probably do some hand-holding, check the equipment settings and then move into another room before starting the procedure, which may be used in addition to, or instead of, chemotherapy. Depending on the doctor's determination, radiation therapy may be used before or after chemotherapy.

"The therapist is never exposed to radiation," says Scarlett. "But we're the front-line contact for the patient, offering some comfort, and watching them to alert the doctor if there appear to be any side effects. Working with each patient for up to eight weeks, it's easy to build up a bit of a relationship; and they're appreciative because you're making their lives a bit easier."

There's a big shortage in the radiation therapy field, so a lot of institutions are looking to hire qualified people. Besides offering great pay--salaries for radiation therapists start at about $60,000 a year--the hours are pretty much set at 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM, five days a week.

"Radiology courses are often offered at community colleges or through hospitals, while radiation therapy courses are offered at four-year colleges and at hospitals," notes Scarlett, who received an associate's degree in allied health at Gwynedd-Mercy College in Gwynedd Valley, Pa. Today she manages a 30-person radiation oncology department. "I was always interested in people, so I guess it was natural to be interested in a health care career. Now, when I look at job candidates, I consider their personality as well as their academics. There are some things you can't really teach people, like a gift of caring that would drive you to do just about anything for a patient."