BMHD Breast Cancer Suite celebrates first anniversary

Staff Writer
Runnels County Register
The BMHD mammo suite state-of-the-art equipment, including screens on the wall that depict calming scenes, as well as a Scentys that fills the are with pleasing scents and aromas.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month and Ballinger Memorial Hospital is celebrating 1-year anniversary of their breast cancer suite. The suite is dedicated to patient privacy, comfort and has state-of-the-art mammography equipment.

Sommer McCullough is the Director of Radiology and, along with Radiology tech Tamara Aguilera, performs the mammograms and other diagnostic tests and screenings at the hospital. McCullough says that the suite cost the hospital over $300,000 and beat their goal of 200 tests, finishing the fiscal year out with 225 mammogram screenings. The suite is unique for a rural community and McCullough says it provides the area with alternatives to driving to Abilene or San Angelo, "The number one positive feedback that we receive from people is how convenient it is to be able to come here and have their screening and diagnostic tests done. They are very outspoken about how convenient it is to come in here and be out in about an hour. Here, they have this private suite to come to so they aren't sitting around with a bunch of other people and waiting on tests." Taking a 45-minute drive to San Angelo, checking in, sitting in the waiting room and then having tests performed and driving 45-minutes back to Ballinger easily takes a half a day, at the very least. According to McCullough and Aguilera, testing for a screening mammogram is 15-20 minutes, while a diagnostic test runs 15-30 minutes and a sonogram usually takes around 20 minutes. The total time for a diagnostic test and an ultrasound is about an hour.

As McCullough said, at Ballinger Memorial Hospital, the patients are in and out in an hour. Aguilera says that the hospital, rather than seeing patients travel to larger cities, is seeing patients from those cities drive out to Ballinger for testing, "We are starting to see more and more people drive here from San Angelo and Abilene. We are really proud of our suite and we absolutely believe in patient privacy."

Any diagnostic test can cause anxiety in the patient, an the hospital works to remove a lot of that anxiety with the state-of-the-art suite, "The suite is very comfortable and calming. There is always anxiety with testing and we work to help remove that anxiety."

McCullough says that the tests are read by a radiologist, typically within 24-hours, and the patient is given the results. McCullough says that mammograms and sonograms aren't the only testing available in the suite, "We can also do bone density scans while the patient is here in the suite."

McCullough points out that the Mammogram machine itself is cutting-edge and has options other, larger departments in big cities don't have, "Here the patient controls the pressure of the machine themselves. It's not some tech back here just running the controls. It provides a level of comfort and security for the patient. We have found that patients typically will apply more pressure with the machine than we will." Also, on each wall by the machine, are video screens that display everything from waterfalls to flowers and wildlife. The scene changes so that you aren’t staring at the same image for the entire 30 minutes or so of the testing. In addition, there is a Scentys fragrance machine that fills the air with the delicate fragrance of flowers. If it weren’t for the mammography machine standing against the wall, you’d think that you just walked into someone’s home. The Sensory Suite also has it’s own independent air conditioning and heater so that the patients can enjoy a temperature that is comfortable to each individual.

When you consider the prevalence of breast cancer, the screening becomes that much more important. The national average says that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. Men are not immune to it and on average 1,000 men every year will be diagnosed with breast cancer. According to the 2019 County Health Rankings, only 33% of women in Runnels County, aged 65 or older, received their annual breast cancer screenings. This is a 3% increase from 2019, an increase that might be somewhat attributable to the addition of the mammo suite in October of 2019. The screening rate for women aged 40-74 in Runnels County is 53%, “Everyone knows someone who has had breast cancer,” Aguilera adds. McCullough believes that many of the patients who came in for screenings, may not have had their screening otherwise, "We feel strongly that some of our employees, as well as others who have come in for their screenings, might not have otherwise had their annual screening performed because of the amount of time it takes to drive to another city and go through everything."

Aguilera says that In some cases, the care a patient receives begins before they ever get to the mammography suite, "We are so community-oriented that we want to take care of our patients in the best way possible to make sure that they get their screenings. We've even arranged transportation to help patients get here, who might not of otherwise been able to get their screenings."

BMHD’s motto for defeating breast cancer is, “The key to the cure is close to home.” McCullough reiterates that sentiment, “Breast cancer is curable. The key is early detection.” According to McCullough, most of the patients who come in for their screenings are in the 55-70 age group.The recommended age for women to start getting their annual screenings is 40. McCullough says that can change, depending on family history, "If someone has a strong family history of breast cancer, they should talk to their provider to get a baseline screening. The cure for breast cancer is to catch it early enough."

An inspirational, handwritten message greets patients in the BMHD mammo suite.