Aug. 15, 2005 When Linda Baptiste saw an ad for a radiation therapist at the island's soon-to-be Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute, she couldn't believe her eyes.
"My mom sent me an ad from the newspaper about the opening," Baptiste says, throwing up her hands in a gesture emphasizing what she views as her blessed good luck. "I was working as a radiation therapist at the time in the states. I came down for an interview in May, and shortly after that I found I was hired. I was so happy."
It has been a long and checkered route for Baptiste to return home for the second time. The native Virgin Islander first left for the states after graduating from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1980, and then completing two years at the University of the Virgin Islands.
"I went to the Virginia Farrell Beauty School in Michigan where I learned to be a nail technician," Baptiste says. "When I came back, I opened The Nailery in Vitraco Mall, and I had a successful business for 12 years."
However, Baptiste developed an allergy to the products the salon used. "I was forced to find another career then," she says. "I had a good friend who was an EKG specialist, and she suggested trying something in the medical field."
That, it turns out, was a natural for Baptiste. "I think the seed was planted when I was little," she says. "My father worked in the operating room at the old Knud Hansen Hospital, and he always brought books home. He brought medical encyclopedias, and I used to look through those books discovering things. He encouraged us to read and learn."
She moved back to Virginia, where she could live with her sister, and enrolled in the Mary Washington School of Radiologic Technology. And school was hard. "They told us it would be rough, and it was," she recounts, suddenly very serious. On top of a strenuous school schedule, "I had no time for anything but study," she says, "I had a two-hour commute each way."
The school is in Fredericksburg, and her sister lives in Stafford, miles away.
However, she put her commuting to good use. "I listened to tapes, and studied my notes," she says. Studied notes while driving? Baptiste smiles, "Well, I shouldn't say that, but I did spend lots of time stuck in traffic."
After she became board certified, graduating from the technology school, she went to the University of Virginia Health system in Charlottesville, Va., where she received her certificate in Radiation Therapy. When she got the news about the opening on St. Thomas, Baptiste was already applying her new talents as a staff therapist at the Cancer Center of Virginia.
Baptiste has round brown eyes, and a slow smile. She is guarded about her personal life. "I'm a work-and-go-home girl," she says. "I'm not into night life."
She is happy, very happy to be home, however. "I wanted to be back on my island, to be around local people, to eat local food. I wish it were more attractive for others to come home."
Though Baptiste appears somewhat shy at first glance, she becomes animated when she talks about her profession, something about which she cares deeply.
What exactly does a radiation therapist do? "We physically see each patient on a daily basis, and we report to the patient's oncologist, who refers the patient to us," Baptiste says. "We see if the patient has other special needs, for instance, if he or she needs a social worker, or if they need to see another doctor.
"We are responsible for the patient's treatment. We take our jobs very seriously," Baptiste says. "At the first treatment, a planning stage is set up, exactly how the patient is to be treated. The plan is revised by the oncologist, and then sent to a dosimetrist, who actually plans the treatments and approves the therapist."
A dosimetrist performs computations to deliver a prescribed dose to a defined tumor and assists in preparations of beam-modifying devices and treatment aids necessary to carry out the planned treatment.
"The work, itself, is very precise," Baptiste explains." We make sure the patient is positioned correctly before the radiation so as to disturb the normal tissues around the tumor as little as possible. Each patient is treatment specific," she says. "We have what we call immobilization devices to make sure the patient is as still as possible during treatment."
She says, "For instance, for a patient being treated for prostate cancer, there is what we call an alpha cradle, an epoxy form around the pelvis made specifically for that patient during treatments."
Baptiste is very excited about the new cancer institute. The 24,000-square-foot, $10 million facility is scheduled to open in October.
"It's going to be so beautiful," she says. We walk over to look out the window at the new site. Workmen are scurrying all over. "Look at that," she says, "It's going to be so beautiful I think it will be even better than some of the cancer centers in the states."
When the institute is completed, it will offer the most sophisticated forms of conventional medicines. Besides radiation, it will offer chemotherapy, surgery, clinical research and other support services, according to information distributed by the Roy L. Schneider Hospital.
Baptiste explains how it will work in her unit. "We stay outside the radiation vault, which is designed to absorb the rays," she says. "It is very safe."
Then Baptiste gets to what is important to her emotionally. With her slow smile, Baptiste says, "We love our patients, and we know they are going through a difficult time, and we try to make it as good as possible," she says. "It is hard being a patient being treated for cancer.
"We try to answer as many questions as we can," Baptiste continues. "How long will the treatment take? Four weeks, six weeks, maybe eight weeks. It depends on a patient's age, and other considerations. Some are able to come and go on their own. "
Other than taking care of her patients, Baptiste is eager to get back to another part of her life. "There's a part of me that I miss," she says. "Because I'm creative, I want to pursue painting and drawing, which I used to do. I'm still settling down right now from my move from the states, but I want to start water colors again," she laughs a bit, "and, I'm going to get it this time."
Returning to her first love, her patients and her work, Baptiste says, "You can't protect yourself from life. You will get involved with your patients." She looks somber for a moment, "Personally, I pray for my patients. I believe they are going to get healed, and I believe in what I do," she says. "That is part of humility, I guess. That's why I chose this field. It starts and ends with humility."
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