Homer facility pursuing technological upgrades

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

Time is critical in treating heart attack patients, and the new blood analysis machine at South Peninsula Hospital can shave hours off the time required to confirm an attack.

The new machine measures the levels in a patient's blood of proteins released by damaged heart muscle, said laboratory manager Jody Johnson.

An older machine measured the level of CK-MB, a protein that appears roughly eight hours after a heart attack. She said the new machine also measures levels of troponin, a protein that appears in the blood as much as four hours sooner than CK-MB.

"Especially here, in a rural area, if you know you're having a cardiac event, it's important so you can get them shipped out," she said.

The new blood analyzer is one of a host of improvements to the Kenai Peninsula Borough-owned hospital in Homer. The hospital just completed its $5 million Phase I expansion project, enlarging its occupational therapy section and adding five long-term care beds, said Bruce Turkington, president of the nonprofit corporation that runs the hospital.

The addition allows space, with proper licensing, to add five beds more.

The board is planning Phase II, a $4 million project to add a wing -- adding space and rearranging the emergency and radiology departments. The board hopes to make space with the Phase II expansion for a magnetic resonance imaging machine, he said, so that the hospital can buy one when need warrants the purchase.

A Phase III project will reconfigure the hospital core, Turkington said.

"Our strategy now is to be as much of a full-care hospital as possible, with surgical capability, to take care of community needs, so that people here can get their health-care needs taken care of locally and not have to travel to Anchorage," he said.

Two years ago, the radiology department replaced its aging fluoroscopy unit -- the moving-picture version of an X-ray machine -- with an up-to-date digital model, said Donna Rufsholm, radiology manager. Before, the radiologist watched the moving image on the screen -- perhaps a patient's esophagus as he swallowed -- and snapped a still photograph on X-ray film at a critical instant. If the film turned out too dark or too light, there was no way to adjust it, she said. The new digital machine makes it possible to adjust the image later.

About the same time, the hospital upgraded its CAT scanner, a machine that uses computers to combine multiple X-ray images into detailed cross-sections of the body. The new machine is much faster than the old one, she said. That helps avoid images blurred by patient motion.

"It offers sub-second scanning for patients that can't hold their breaths," she said.

The new machine also allows CAT scans of blood vessels, and it can quickly scan broad sections of the patient's body, as might be needed for a accident victim with injuries from the neck to the hips.

"Before, that took multiple images. The machine would heat up, and we'd have to wait for it to cool," she said.

Now, the hospital is buying an X-ray machine that measures bone density to detect osteoporosis, equipment it did not have before. Some women with osteoporosis have compression fractures of the spine, she said, so in addition to measuring bone density, the new machine will make spinal X-rays to reveal fractures.

South Peninsula Hospital already has a scanner to convert hard copies of X-rays, sonograms, CAT scans and other medical images into digital data that can be sent through a high-speed telephone line.

That allows Homer physicians to make quick consults with radiologists at Providence hospital in Anchorage when the local radiologist is not available, Rufsholm said.

In the long term, she said, she would like to convert to computerized archiving and storage of radiological images.

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