As the first certified nuclear pharmacists in the English-speaking Caribbean, Tracia-Gay Kennedy-Dixon is venturing into an area with known risks but with even greater potential for diagnosing a wide range of illnesses that create undue burdens for families.
The 38-year-old was trained and certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after completing a one-year programme in Liverpool, England.
She also has certification in nuclear pharmacy from the University of Arkansas and the University of New Mexico.
Instead of dispensing drugs like most pharmacists, Kennedy-Dixon’s primary function will be to inject pharmaceutical radioactive isotopes into patients to assist with the diagnosis of medical conditions.
“It’s a speciality area of pharmacy where you actually deal with compounding and dispensing of radioactive materials.
“So in your regular community pharmacy, even your regular hospital pharmacy, you are dealing with pharmaceutical agents, but in nuclear pharmacy, you are putting together a pharmaceutical agent and a radioactive isotope, and this is then injected in a patient and the patient is scanned to determine the function, say, of a kidney or the heart or the brain, as the case may be, or to show tumours,” Kennedy-Dixon told The Sunday Gleaner.
“So your physician might send you over for a nuclear medicine scan because he wants to know what is happening. Based on the results he can now say, ‘Yes, you need a kidney transplant’, because this kidney definitely isn’t working, or you need to go on dialysis, as the case may be, or your heart is not pumping blood as it is supposed to,” she added.
Kennedy-Dixon has been a pharmacist for 14 years and lectures first to third-year students in the Doctor of Pharmacy programme at the University of the West Indies, Mona. She said the signs were always there that she would pursue something along this line.
“I was always a good science student, so I knew I would do something in healthcare. My mom always said that as a child, if somebody got a cut, I would always grab a first aid kit and be willing to sort out the wound and so forth,” said Kennedy-Dixon, who is a graduate of Knox College in Spaldings, Clarendon.
After completing her studies at UWI, Mona, in 2003, Kennedy-Dixon worked at the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) for one year before moving on to work in the private sector.
She returned to UWI in 2008 to accept a post as the UWI Health Centre’s chief pharmacist and then left in 2015 to start lecturing full-time.
She recalls returning to work after a three- month break in 2015 and seeing an email notifying staff members of the opportunity to be trained as nuclear pharmacists by the IAEA in one of the more than 100 member states where it operates. She consulted her colleagues, but they had no interest, since no one knew for sure where they would be placed.
COMES WITH RISKS
“Everybody was like ‘Uh, that just sounds too off’, and I didn’t think about it for a while, and then it came back to me, what about this thing, and then I decided to apply,” she recounted.
A few months later she received a congratulatory message and was informed that she would be studying in Liverpool, England.
Now that the training is done she expects to work at the UHWI Nuclear Medicine Centre, which should be opened early next year.
Being a nuclear pharmacist comes with risks, but Kennedy-Dixon is not afraid.
“Even in the United States and in England, you don’t find a lot of persons gravitating towards it because of the radiation risk, because even though we are treating using radioactive isotopes, the fact of the matter is that too much radiation exposure can result in cancer,” she said.
“It requires a lot of lead shielding, so even in the facility itself, the walls will have to have lead in them because you don’t want somebody passing outside and is exposed to the radiation that is inside.
“So even my equipment that I am working with have lead shielding; all my vials that I am going to be using have to have lead shielding containers around them to minimise my exposure to the radioactive isotope,” she explained.
As a lecturer, she gets to impart her knowledge to her students, and she is happy to see that some are already expressing an interest in this area.
“You know the young generation; they want to defy the norm, they don’t want to be like everybody else, they want to be trendsetters, so it is relatively easy, and the thing about it is that worldwide, it is a niche area, so the demand is there,” said Kennedy-Dixon.