‘Patients Became Like Family’ – Exploring Life As A Radiation Therapist
After almost 25 years working as a radiation therapist helping cancer patients in Western Sydney, Radhini Chelvarajah has a new mission in life.
Radhini – known affectionately as Rad to most of her colleagues – recently left her role at Westmead Hospital and is now working to improve radiation therapy treatment services at an oncology centre in her native Sri Lanka.
Rad, whose daughter Rev has just started life as a radiation oncology registrar, said she was happy to help her ‘motherland’ in her own way.
“I thought, ‘what better way I could help my motherland by imparting my knowledge in some way’,” she said. “There aren’t many oncology departments in Sri Lanka and I am passionate about that part of the world.
“I have so enjoyed my time as a radiation therapist. It was hard leaving (Westmead Hospital) because I love my work, but I have done my best and achieved what I could.
“I’m looking forward to enjoying the next stage of my life, whatever it brings.”
Rad had been studying at medical school in Sri Lanka when she moved to Australia in 1990 to be with her then new husband and after her university temporarily closed due to civil unrest.
“Medicine was my passion as my dad was a doctor and he gave me plenty of guidance,” she said.
“When I came to Australia, though, I realised pursuing medicine would be challenging both financially and emotionally for my young family.
“My husband’s uncle was a doctor. He said radiation therapy was an up-and-coming speciality at that time and would suit me as I wanted to be in a field with continuous patient care.
“I didn’t know much about it, but I was accepted onto a training course at Sydney University – and I never looked back.”
Over the years Rad has assisted countless cancer patients with their treatment, something which has given her great satisfaction.
“Patients became like family – that was the thing I cherished most,” she said. “Sometimes people who couldn’t open up fully to their own loved ones for whatever reason would choose to open up to you.
“Just being a person they could talk to – have a cry or a laugh with and seeing them daily – was something special. “I’ve loved it.”
Rad said working as a radiation therapist had its challenges, but she never lost her enjoyment for the role.
“The hardest part for me was treating kids, especially being a mother of two children myself,” she said. “It’s never nice to see children suffering.
“Coping with the technological changes has also been challenging. Over the last few years there have been so many new developments. Being part of the ‘older generation’, it takes longer to grasp these.
“I have enjoyed teaching and mentoring junior therapists and radiation oncology registrars and it has always given me joy and pride to see them grow through the profession and make a name for themselves
“Overall, it’s been satisfying and rewarding – the perfect job for me.”
In retirement, Rad, along with a few colleagues, is continuing to spread her knowledge and expertise about radiation therapy in Sri Lanka
In 2012 she visited a radiation oncology treatment centre in the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna and has since returned multiple times. During her visits she has shared her expertise with the local team, teaching them everything from modern radiation therapy techniques and image interpretation to optimal record-keeping procedures.
Since 2012 this department has been upgraded and is expecting their first clinic and 3D planning system.
“The first time I went I was very nervous,” Rad said. “I didn’t know how I would be accepted and didn’t want to ‘force’ myself on them.
“It was in a remote area and you had to travel through potholed, ill-defined streets. Patients tended to travel from all different places, some extremely far, to receive daily treatment
“Unfortunately, a lot of the patients are not educated enough to know what radiation therapy is or how it works for them. Many of the patients are receiving palliative treatment due to poor health literacy and awareness.
“It’s been about working with the staff to develop new procedures and promote ongoing education in the field. The staff were willing to learn, so it was a pleasure to teach them.”
Rad is also enjoying seeing her daughter enjoying her budding role as a radiation oncologist.
“I didn’t force Rev into this area, but I think it’s in her blood,” she said. “Rev adored her grandfather – my father – and I think she wanted to follow in his footsteps in medicine.
“We used to joke that maybe one day if Rev would start her career in radiation oncology, that would be the day I leave radiation therapy – and it wasn’t far off happening.”
Rev Chelvarajah, who is working at Liverpool Hospital and Campbelltown Hospital in Sydney’s south-west, said seeing her mother’s career progression had influenced her own path.
“Because I went to high school next to Westmead Hospital, I remember going to mum’s work, the Radiation Oncology Department, both before and after school,” she said. “I got to know the staff tea room there very well!
“When I wanted to go to med school, my mum was really supportive – she’s been a big inspiration for me.
“I like how radiation oncology allows me to help patients and their family both medically and emotionally. It’s also wonderful to work in a multi-disciplinary team as we tackle challenges together.
“It’s nice to be working with people from different backgrounds and you learn new stuff constantly.
“You feel you are making a tangible impact, which is what Mum always talked about. I didn’t realise what she meant by that until I started working, but now I do.”
For more on radiation therapy, it uses and role in cancer treatment, click here.