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Sam Bruno’s smiling down on us today: PET scanner will be installed this month

First scan likely this summer, as diagnostic tool likely to save Northerners 477,000 kilometres worth of travel for health reasons

If you believe in angels, one very happy one is smiling down on Sudbury right now.

The efforts of the man who led the drive to bring a positron emission tomography scanner to Sudbury are bearing fruit this week after Health Sciences North received 38 boxes containing parts of a sophisticated PET/CT scanner.

Award-winning salesman Sam Bruno became the poster child for the need for a PET scanner in the Northeast after he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Bruno, who died at 55 in July 2010, had two PET scans during the course of his illness, both in southern Ontario.

Bruno first fought for Ontarians to gain wider access to PET scans, which were at the time being used only in limited clinical trials. While travelling to Toronto regularly for cancer treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital, the indomitable Bruno began a movement to collect tens of thousands of names on a petition demanding a scanner for the Northeast.

His family and friends, through the Sam Bruno PET Steering Committee formed after his death, launched a campaign that caught fire in the Northeast and went on to raise $4.3 million for the capital cost of the scanner. 

Positron emission tomography is a type of nuclear medicine functional imaging that observes metabolic processes and is used to diagnose and stage treatment for diseases such as cancer and cardiac illness.

HSN posted on its Facebook page this week that the arrival of the PET pieces is a day 10 years in the making, starting with the efforts of Sam Bruno and the Northern Cancer Foundation.

HSN’s Mark Hartman, senior vice-president of patient experience and digital transformation, said the hospital team that worked on getting the PET/CT scanner here is excited about the arrival of the scanner, which will be assembled and installed by manufacturer GE this month.
But he gave full credit to the community for getting behind Bruno’s dream and persevering to raise the money to purchase the $3.8-million piece of equipment.

The Bruno committee has credited Hartman for his assistance throughout the PET drive, but not all HSN and Health ministry officials were on board originally with the idea that a PET scanner was needed in Sudbury. Research showed not enough scans would be performed annually to justify the cost. The then Liberal government would not commit to providing operational funding for the scans either. That changed after the Sam Bruno PET campaign raised millions in donations ranging from pocket change collected by children to two anonymous $500,000 donations that brought the committee to its fundraising goal.

The Liberal government then committed to providing $4.6 million to build a suite to accommodate the new combined PET/CT scanner in about 4,500 square feet of space on stilts adjacent to HSN’s nuclear medicine department. The province has pledged $1.6 million in operational funding.

Hartman said construction has advanced to the point that GE technicians can begin unpacking the main gantry or framework of the PET/CT scanner and its component parts, and installing them in the PET/CT suite.

There has been surprisingly little disruption in the nuclear medicine department throughout the construction phase because the suite is being built outside the second level of the south tower. Hospital officials expect the first PET scan will be performed this summer. HSN is funded to do about 900 PET scans a year, which is good news for patients who previously had to travel out of town for the diagnostic test. Hartman said that will have a big impact on people in the Northeast.

Staff and physicians are receiving two types of training to operate the new scanner – some by GE personnel and others attended by individuals off-site.

HSN’s post about the arrival of the PET scanner was cheered on Facebook. One of the first people to comment on the announcement was realtor Terry Ames. Ames had several PET scans outside of Sudbury, some in the United States, after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Ames pursued a variety of treatments, conventional and unconventional, and has survived the devastating cancer.

Ames posted on Facebook: “Everyone should be so proud. Sam Bruno’s family especially. I do hope I get invited for the opening ceremony.”

Several people echoed their thanks to Bruno’s family and friends who kept Sam’s vision alive after he died. Many also credited the ongoing efforts of nuclear medicine specialist Dr. Dave Webster, who championed the need for a PET scanner in Sudbury and the wider use of the technology in Ontario.

In its Facebook post, HSN said the entire region “rallied around Sam's dream to have a PET in Sudbury and the result is a new piece of equipment that will provide significant benefits to patients in Northeastern Ontario.”

Dr. Tom Carr, head of service for nuclear medicine at HSN, said having a PET/CT scanner in Sudbury means “we are going to get the best possible information about the location and spread of your cancer without the delay or bother of having to go to Southern Ontario." 

Radiation oncologist Dr. Andrew Pearce said physicians will be able to design the best treatment plans for patients thanks to the accuracy and precision of the PET/CT scanner.

 "A PET scan is a lot like looking at lights on a Christmas tree. Imagine a tree with all green lights, except one comes on in red instead. That's what it's like to find cancer with a PET scan,” said Pearce.

Rita Conley posted on Facebook, directed at Bruno’s sister Mary Hopkin: “Mary, I know Sam is smiling. We talked about this a lot.”

Many thanked the Bruno family and committee for their commitment and perseverance to a campaign that will benefit the entire community.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the PET/CT suite last June, Bruno PET committee spokeswoman Brenda Tessaro thanked everyone who helped with donations, large or small. Quoting anthropologist Margaret Mead, Tessaro said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

Carr estimated the new machine will save northerners 477,000 kilometres of travel for health reasons.

He said the PET scanner is an important diagnostic tool that helps in the detection of certain forms of cancer, heart disease and neurological conditions. It is also a powerful tool in health research.

Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas, the New Democrats’ Health critic, became friends with Sam Bruno and aided him with his campaign before and after his death, presenting well over 20,000 names on petitions for a PET scanner in the Ontario Legislature, 200 at a time.

Carol Mulligan is an award-winning reporter and one of Greater Sudbury’s most experienced journalists.