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The Real Poop

Radiation accidents don't always produce Spidermen and Incredible Hulks. There are thousands of other, horrible mutants, who possess superhero qualities but who toil away in the darkness, their faces aglow in the light of their computer screens. They shun the company of mere homo sapiens, even as they pore over detailed images of human anatomy, searching endlessly for the invisible foes of good health. They work tirelessly for mere hundreds of thousands of dollars, scanning for lumps, specks, anomalies, and missing children's toys. Who are these creatures who probe and poke and extract buried secrets from our rectums and other body cavities?

Radiologists are doctors who have gone to the dark side. They work in rooms with the lights off and the computers on. They are the best-trained of medical professions and therefore seem to have Superman-like powers.

Before radiology (or "diagnostic imaging"), medical research could only go skin deep. The only patients willing to sit still for investigative intrusions on their innards weren't exactly volunteering for the opportunity. And corpses have a tendency to skip out on bills, not to mention their discouraging recovery rates.

Today, a doctor who wants to check out a suspicious region (and we aren't talking about a compound in Islamabad), can cry out in his best Bones impersonation, "Captain, we've got to go deeper!" and a radiologist is summoned to look into the matter.

The radiologist (or technician) takes pictures using radiation, the same stuff Homer Simpson is guarding. X-rays are the oldest form of…seeing through flesh…and they are still the first and most common way to look at injuries like broken bones, diseases like pneumonia, and miscellaneous swollen bits, obstructions, and abnormalities of the skeleton or organs.

Different forms of radiation are used to take more detailed pictures of patients. MRIs, CAT and PET scans are the most common. Other, less common tools include a flashlight, a meat slicer, and a magnifying glass. If you meet a radiologist who uses these tools, call the police.

You can spot a radiologist by his large head. Not only does he retain more schooling than other doctors, he has to keep up with cutting edge technology, developments in software, hardware, and new research data. A good radiologist can identify all the normal, healthy states of a body, the skeleton, the nervous system, the internal organs, the circulatory system, muscles, tissues, membranes, veins, and a thousand different things that move, grow, shrink, change, and age. Then they learn to recognize everything that could go wrong with each of those systems.

Radiologists need to be on call. Not only do patients need to know their test results fairly quickly if the doctor suspects something like cancer, there is little Jimmy in the ER, who is wondering if he can get back to the baseball game after he jumped off the roof. It's not like we didn't warn him. We told him time and time again, but he still came running to us for sympathy.

Radiologists spend most of their time looking at images. They rarely meet with patients, but when they do, they need extremely good bedside manners. It's not easy to tell patients that you've actually found something in your pictures. Radiology is one medical field where telecommuting is common.

Radiologists probably cringe when they hear politicians and insurance companies talk about "unnecessary tests." No matter how many lives are saved by early detection (that's right, you're an Early Detective), every time a doctor orders a test, some insurance company will be scanning those expenses with a fine toothed magnifying glass of their own. Keep in mind, you will also be required to perform a minimum number of exams to remain certified. For mammograms, radiologists must view at least 450 screens a year. Be prepared for the ups and downs of an industry that is on the cutting edge of curing diseases, but also on the budget chopping block. Pursuing a specialty might be a way to keep up with new research and focus your practice into a needed resource.

Contributing to the worldwide library of diagnostic imagery is a critical component for curing diseases like cancer. Radiologists depend on this library to narrow down their search results. The talented radiologist is the one who can answer questions like "what is that cloudy splotch on that lung X-ray? Why are those lobes so swollen on one side of a brain? Is it normal to have a house key in the intestines?"

Interventional radiology gives a radiologist much more interaction with patients. It's the best of both worlds. You get to look through a scope or at a screen while you operate. Radiologists also treat cancer with radiation therapy.

Breast cancer research has grown faster than a starlet's bust line, thanks to huge pink ribbon fundraising campaigns. A career in breast cancer detection or treatment could be extremely gratifying. You could get your hands on more state-of-the-art equipment than George Clooney.