As much as we depend on technology to diagnose and treat cancer, the human eye still plays a key role. At Yampa Valley Medical Center, that vision belongs to Dr. William F. Cox Jr., a pathologist with 33 years of experience in his specialty.
Cox has spent countless hours peering into a microscope in his hospital pathology lab, staring at tissue samples and cells for telltale signs of cancer and other disease. A new 12.1-megapixel camera attached to Cox's trusty microscope literally has changed the way he looks at his work.
"I can now conduct a real-time microscopic examination by turning a dial and magnifying the cells, viewing them on a full-screen computer monitor," Cox said. "One of the best things about this new technology is that I can call my colleagues in Denver and ask them to look at the samples simultaneously on their computers."
Cox is a partner in Colorado Pathology Consultants, based in Denver. He works at Yampa Valley Medical Center full-time while his partners cover pathology duties at Denver metro-area hospitals, including Lutheran, St. Joseph, Rose and Good Samaritan.
Cox calls on his partners when needed, but he specializes in diagnosing cancer. He did not require any second opinions last week when using the camera to study glandular tissue, scrolling through a series of samples.
The multicolored images on his computer screen looked to the nonmedical eye like psychedelic patterns of tiny rivers and islands. Pointing to the various pink, purple and white shapes, Cox quickly identified abnormal cell formations.
"Look at the quality of the picture," Cox enthused. "Here, we see the tumor breaking through the healthy cell structure. I am able to classify this as a follicular carcinoma of the thyroid gland because this invasion into normal tissue is the basic criterion for that diagnosis."
Cox shared his images last Friday with the YVMC Tumor Board. This group, which meets monthly, includes the hospital's cancer care coordinator as well as oncologists, a radiation oncologist, surgeons, radiologists and Cox. The new technology got rave reviews.
"This is truly an educational improvement for YVMC," Cox said. "It allows me to share and show the criteria for different types of malignancies. It is crucial to precisely diagnose the type of cancer. The physicians participating in the Tumor Board need detailed information to decide exactly how the patient will be treated."
In addition to magnifying the cells and creating computer connectivity for multiple-site viewing, the new camera allows Cox to exactly calculate the size of a tumor or cell abnormality. By clicking a computer key, Cox superimposes a measuring device on the screen. The measurement is precise to a micrometer, or a thousandth of a millimeter.
"Up until this week, our method of measuring a malignancy was cumbersome and time-consuming, requiring manual calculations," Cox said. "This innovative technology does everything automatically after I position the overlay."
Another feature of the camera and its corresponding software is that Cox can easily burn the images onto a CD for the patient. This vital information can then be shared with oncologists and other physicians should the patient choose to go to a national cancer treatment center.
Cox is grateful to the Healthcare Foundation for the Yampa Valley, which provided the camera after part-time Steamboat Springs resident Kathy Cain donated the amount of money needed to purchase it.
"This technology is what you find in large metropolitan hospitals," Cox said. "Now, we have it here, thanks to a generous donor who is interested in augmenting the cancer care abilities of YVMC. This type of community support has an enormous impact."