Alumni Lead Push for State-of-the-Art Cancer Treatment Locally
In December 2021, Chico resident Robert Olea was planning his 91st birthday party. Six months before that, he was planning his funeral.
“The doctors told me I would probably not see Christmas,” he said, of the pancreatic cancer diagnosis he was given in May 2021.
While Olea deliberated on speakers and songs for his celebration of life, a doctor at Enloe Cancer Center told him about its newest disease-fighting weapon—the MRIdian Linear Accelerator. The state-of-the-art machine, made possible by a team of Chico State alumni, uses MRI-guided radiation to target and treat tumors and could give Olea a strong chance for survival.
Installed last May, the machine and its cutting-edge technology are prolonging North State lives and attracting attention from individuals from Oregon to Los Angeles. Enloe Cancer Center Senior Director of Ambulatory Operations Traci Hunt (Nursing, ’91) said that as cancer-fighting technology improved, the Center began researching ways to better meet the community’s healthcare needs—the MRIdian is providing just that.
“We’re giving people additional opportunity and time and hope,” she said. “I think that is some of the best work you can do out there.”
Hunt is one of four Chico State alumni at Enloe Medical Center who have been instrumental in its years-long journey of planning, vetting and testing, and implementation of the MRIdian. Administrators like Hunt and Director Ehren Hawkins (Health Administration, ’08) researched options, including adding a second machine of an advanced radiotherapy system that treats some of the most complex cancers—versus diversifying with a MRIdian.
“Buying another one of those would just mean adding capacity to our system—we could double our patient load, but we can’t do anything new that we couldn’t do before,” Hawkins said.
What sets the MRIdian system apart is that under the MRI, the machine visualizes the tumor’s edges and contours the radiation dose right around it. Accurate to a millimeter, it provides exceptionally precise and accurate treatment. What could potentially be weeks of treatment—along with the accompanying nausea, fatigue, or dizziness that comes with blasting toxins into a wider swath of the patient’s body—is reduced to about one week with little to no side effects.
This innovative approach to medicine is partly what drives Hawkins, a near-lifelong Chico resident whose mother’s worked as a nurse helped inspired his career path.
“Being a part of the healthcare system that’s caring for our community is very important to me,” Hawkins said. “It’s important that I see the mission of giving back to the community in action.”
After Hunt and Hawkins helped with more than a year of researching, testing, and planning, Enloe selected the MRIdian as its next cancer-fighting tool. Nearly another year went into renovating the space before the machine could be installed.
Once it arrived, the next step was learning everything about the MRIdian while training others—a task Chief Medical Physicist Lonny Trestrail (Computer Science, ’04) embraced. Teaching technology became a passion during his undergraduate years as he meshed computer programming and engineering with customer support quality assurance for a small software development company. Part of his role was to go into the field to train those who purchased the software how to use it—including, at one point, a medical office.
“That’s where my eyes were opened to the world of medical physics,” he said. “I worked with these teams, helped them collect data, and conditioned their machines and the software—it was constant problem solving and I just loved it.”
When it comes to prepping patients and tracing around the tumors, Radiation Therapist Chris Kuhlman (Food and Nutrition Communication, ’17) has his hands on the dials. From warming up the MRIdian and performing quality assurance before contouring the beam around tumors, this is rewarding work for him, particularly because of how deeply he connects with his patients.
“Some people who come here don’t have family to interact with through this process,” he said. “We see them on a daily basis and are able to provide them with that care and comfort.”
Originally from Southern California, Kuhlman enjoyed the personable touch he received at Chico State as well as the slower pace of working in a Northern California hospital. Here, he can truly get to know those being treated and share in their experiences.
“Going through hard times like this, building a connection with people is so important,” he said. “With everything that’s going on, that connection has gotten lost. We hug people every day.”
Thanks to the MRIdian Linear Accelerator, Olea was able to celebrate his 91st birthday—enjoying a small lunch locally with his wife and close friends. He credits the machine for his efficient and effective treatment that saved his life.
“I had no side effects from this whole procedure, no nausea or dizziness,” Olea recalled. “Had I not had that treatment, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Enloe’s history of revolutionary cancer care dates back to when it opened California’s first radiation oncology center north of San Francisco in the main hospital’s basement in 1968. The innovation continues today. As of today, Enloe Cancer Center has the only MRIdian in the state north of Los Angeles—a total of three are on the West Coast, 21 in the United States, and 48 worldwide.
Hunt, a breast cancer survivor herself, knows firsthand how daunting and uncertain a diagnosis can be for patients, so she’s determined to help make the journey easier for patients. Supporting the MRIdian’s availability for local cancer patients and pushing for even more innovation, she said has been an incredible career path.
“Looking back on my career, I knew I wanted to be in nursing, but I wasn’t quite sure where my journey would lead me,” Hunt said. “This has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”