An Interview with Suzanne Kelley
“The most important trait for a sonographer to have is precise hand-eye coordination and the ability to focus for long periods of time on small details in an image.”
Suzanne Kelley is an assistant professor of sonography at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she also works as the sonography program’s clinical coordinator.
Suzanne holds a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Before discovering her passion for sonography, she gained experience in the medical field by working as a nurse for 6 years.
In your own words, what is sonography?
In the broadest of terms, sonography is the use of complex technology (e.g. B-mode, color, and spectral Doppler imaging) instrumentation to produce sound waves that transmitted through various tissues, organs and blood vessels to generate an image that sonographers use to analyze and diagnose various ranges of normal to pathological conditions such as atherosclerosis, cardiomyopathies and malignant tumors, to name a few. Sonographers specialize in three distinct areas, which are general ultrasound (abdomen, obstetrics/gynecology), cardiac sonography and vascular sonography, in addition to various subspecialties such as fetal echocardiography.
What classes do you teach in sonography?
My specialty is vascular sonography, which has to do with producing images and analyzing the characteristics of the blood flow to diagnose normal versus abnormal flow conditions of the vessels. I teach students two different courses in this concentration, along with an advanced course in vascular sonography.
In the first vascular sonography course, I teach students the theory and practice of Doppler ultrasound and the intricacies of evaluating blood flow in arteries and veins. In the second course, the focus is on the peripheral arterial and the visceral vascular system.
In preparation for the cardiovascular courses, I teach a class called cardiovascular concepts, which examines the microscopic anatomy of a blood vessel, normal flow dynamics, conductivity and functionality of the heart and blood vessels, electrocardiography, and common pharmacological agents used to treat some of the more common cardiovascular conditions.
How long have you been a professor of sonography?
I have been an assistant professor teaching vascular sonography for the past 15 years. Before that, I worked for 6 years as a nurse at a local community hospital where I primarily cared for patients who experienced a stroke. When I was offered an opportunity to diagnose the underlying cause of stroke and help prevent its devastating consequences through the use of Doppler in vascular sonography, I was excited to learn this new technology. When I started in this field, it was relatively new, so it has been an exciting journey to see how it has developed over the years.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying sonography,” what would your response be?
In my experience with training many people, I have learned that not everybody is cut out for this discipline. If that is the case, students should not doggedly persist just because they do not want to withdraw from school. If they do not have the specific skills required to be a sonographer, it would be better to move into another area of healthcare and find what they are good at. Whether or not a student is suited to sonography usually becomes evident within the first semester of the program.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a sonographer and what traits would hinder success?
This might be considered more of a physical characteristic, but the most important trait for a sonographer to have is precise hand-eye coordination and the ability to focus for long periods of time on small details in an image. The instruments used in the field rely on very fine motor movements, with sonographers often having only a few millimeters of elbow room, so to speak, between accuracy and inaccuracy in test results.
Some character traits that would significantly hurt a sonographer are carelessness and stubbornness. There is no room for mistakes in this field. If you do make a mistake, it can have real consequences for the patient who you are working with. And if mistakes happen, you have to be willing to admit to them, to find out what went wrong, and to ask for help so that you don’t make the same mistake again.
What courses in sonography are most important for a student to take?
The most important courses for a sonography student to take depend on their specialty. Each specialty area requires a different set of skills, so naturally, the most valuable classes vary as well. Nonetheless, the most important prerequisites would be stellar grades in anatomy and physiology, physics and human biology.
Outside of sonography, what courses would you recommend to a student?
Outside of sonography, I recommend that students take some medical communication and writing classes so that they learn how to communicate concisely both in verbal and written formats. Doctors and other medical professionals need to draw pertinent information from a sonographer’s report in a matter of seconds in order to figure out what is happening with the patient and render a diagnosis. Learning the correct vernacular is critical to the reporting process.
What skills can students expect to gain while studying sonography?
Sonography students can expect to gain skills in diagnostics and patient care. They will learn how to look at sonographic images to spot potential health problems in patients. They will also learn how to be empathetic when dealing with patients. Often, people who are undergoing sonography procedures will express a lot of emotion, so sonography students will learn to handle patients with respectful sympathy. If a student doesn’t have those skills when they start the program, they will certainly have them when they leave.
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of sonography?
For most single sonography tracks, an associates degree at a community college is sufficient. However, I believe that if a student wants to focus on two tracks, they should consider a university that offers a bachelors degree, which provides a foundation in all areas of concentration with clinical rotations in one or two of the concentrations. In my opinion, the content and complexity of the material sonographers need to learn warrants higher education.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in sonography?
The job outlook for skilled sonographers is very good, but trends vary from state to state with regards to positions available in each of the concentrations. Most employers want someone skilled in vascular sonography, however, depending on the work environment, it may be something students can learn on the job after training in one of the other concentrations. However, if a person did not put enough time into their studies they will have a difficult time getting and keeping a job. There is little tolerance for mistakes in this field. For that reason, sonography graduates need to come prepared to interviews and keep an open mind about developing new skills once in the workplace.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying sonography?
My best advice for people who are considering sonography is to take their programs of study seriously. The sonography field is a very small network of medical professionals, which means that if you are good, people will know about you and that will improve your job prospects. But if you mess up and make careless mistakes, people will know about that too. You need to start making a good name for yourself while you are still in school, and once you get a job, mind your attendance and be professional at all times.