With a master’s degree in physics, it comes as no surprise that Maj. David Winter, 59th Medical Wing medical physicist, has spent his entire career in motion.
At Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, or WHASC, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Winter is in charge of operating a diverse array of imaging machinery that detects and combats cancer in patients.
His duties throughout his 10 years in medical physics, however, are continuously changing as his career field continues to develop and he bounces across the globe to locations like Netherlands and Japan for different assignments.
“There’s no such thing as a typical day for a medical physicist,” Winter said. “One day, I might be here at JBSA-Lackland in front of a computer, analyzing a dose calculation for a patient who just had a CT scan, and the next day I might be performing a different test in Italy.”
The biggest challenge for Winter wasn’t being stationed in foreign countries, but working with technology that changes constantly, he said.
He has had to adapt to work with methods of care across a wide spectrum, ranging from nuclear medicine and radiation therapy to more advanced techniques as magnetic resonance imaging.
To complicate things, the Air Force is typically one of the first organizations in the world to encounter new technology in the imaging field, making specialists like Winter first to put them to practice.
“We work on the edge of the sword,” Winter said. “We’re testing equipment that hasn’t been tested anywhere else in the Air Force and that leaves us in a position where we are the ones creating and defining the testing standard.”
For Winter, the stakes of operating these complex machines couldn’t be higher.
Most devices used for imaging and therapy rely on ionizing radiation delivery, which carries an inherent risk of injuring the patient if the device malfunctions or is used improperly. As a result, specialists like Winter are responsible for more than just pushing buttons on an X-Ray or magnetic resonance imaging machine.
They’re tasked with learning the ins-and-outs of every device in the imaging department, whether it’s a non-ionizing imaging device like MRIs and ultrasounds, or a radiation-oriented machine that uses computer tomography, mammography and radiography.
“Medical physicists ensure everything is safe,” Winter noted. “What we do ensures that our equipment is ready to go, whenever we need it.”
These machines aren’t used to identify just cancer or other harmful diseases, as radiation can also be used to combat these ailments.
For Winter, it’s a case of fighting fire with fire.
“Our diagnostic process relies on equipment that could, in theory, be dangerous to our patients,” he noted. “With therapy, however, we’re actually using these techniques to kill cancer without killing the patient.”
Once cancer has been localized to a specific part of a patient’s anatomy, the imaging department targets the area with a machine called a linear accelerator. It delivers extreme amounts of radiation to the area to kill the cancer.
Winter’s calibration of the device ensures the process isn’t harmful to the patient.
Preventing malfunctions prevents future treatments from harming the patient too. For example, false impressions – or readings – of cancer could be devastating to the diagnostic process.
In order to treat our patients, we have to know, fundamentally, what’s wrong with them,” Winter explained. “Without that service, care would grind to a halt.”
With a nonexistent margin for error, medical physicists are a constantly in demand at medical installations across the Air Force, he said.
Medical imaging sites across the world need constant evaluation and care – but not every site has a specialist like Winter on location. So, he travels abroad to provide support to different bases.
Even with worldwide demand for his services, Winter remains a crucial cog at JBSA-Lackland. His imaging department at WHASC has 15 active-duty personnel and 10 civilian workers responsible for treating thousands of patients each year.
“We are a small, but mighty field,” Winter explained. “My job gives me an opportunity to affect patient care in a way that many people don’t even know is necessary and I take a great deal of pride in that. As a medical physicist, I know that everything I do has a real and positive impact on our patients, even if it is behind the scenes.”
Despite being in a continuously changing career field, Winter said his love for the science behind the machines has remained a constant.
“The medical field always intrigued me,” Winter said. “This is an opportunity for me to use my passion for the subject of physics in a real and practical way to take care of patients.”
(Editor's note: Joint Base San Antonio Front and Center is a series of stories highlighting outstanding members of the community while showcasing their impact on the missions that take place at JBSA.)