Face of InnoVAtion is a regular series from the VA Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE) focusing on VA employees who are working to change and save Veteran lives through innovation. This month, meet DJ Cole, radiologic technologist at VA Richmond Healthcare System.

Growing up a tomboy with a knack for outdoor adventures, DJ Cole had her fair share of emergency room visits. It wasn’t until a fateful visit to the hospital for a broken bone that the medical field sparked her curiosity. She was amazed that a medical professional could painlessly investigate her bones and ultimately help her heal.

This inquisitive spirit has carried Cole throughout her career and is now benefitting Veterans facing knee procedures.

Radiologic Technologist DJ Cole

Cole attended Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical College of Virginia. After graduating, she joined the medical community as a radiology technologist. She explored all that her field had to offer, serving as an interventional technologist, lead technologist, and ultrasound and CAT scan technologist.

Inspired by her mother’s career as a VA nursing supervisor, Cole has been working at Richmond VA since 1980. She says the clinic enables her to work alongside a passionate group of professionals who broaden her horizons and are equally committed to quality care.

“What I enjoy about VA is all of the patients who I meet,” she said. “I enjoy when they tell me about their career serving our country. A smile means a lot to them. A helping hand with information for them goes a long way. I am here for them. If it takes a few more seconds to help, I will. You never know what that Veteran is going through. I think I can make a small difference.”

A better way

When joining the pain clinic, she quickly noticed that knee procedures were particularly difficult for patients. The main challenge was that the knee had to be propped up high enough to X-ray from the top and side points of view. When she joined the service, pillows, towels and sheets were the standard to raise a patient’s leg. Cole knew there had to be a better way.

“Just imagine. The pillow flattens, towels and sheets move and scoot out quickly, and you’re repositioning again, all while our physician is trying to place four needles in the knee and we are asking the patient to hold still,” she said. “By any standards, that’s a tall order for anyone.”

Wanted to make exam less stressful

Many Veterans consequently needed to reschedule their visits due to intense pain and too much movement, increasing the radiation dose to both the patient and staff. In some cases, sedation is required for the rescheduled procedure. Following her inquisitive nature, Cole wanted to make the exam less stressful, secure the lower leg in a natural resting position, all while providing the patient with a positive experience.

Cole used these experiences in the Pain Clinic to brainstorm a new positioning device to improve the Veteran experience during these knee exams. She applied to the VHA Innovators Network (iNET) Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Investment Program three years in a row before finally receiving an acceptance for fiscal year 2021.

Cole remained committed to solving this problem. She used those first three years to collect data to inform her future design and practice and refine her pitch. As a Spark-Seed-Spread Investee, she was provided the support and guidance to finally bring her vision to life and has since prototyped the Atlas Knee Supporter in two sizes to fit a variety of knee girths.

Ensuring a safe and comfortable experience

Cole took everything into consideration to ensure a safe and comfortable experience for the Veteran. She has ensured adherence to infection control standards, strategically placed cut-outs for injection-site access, and utilized specialty materials that not only contour to the joints for comfort and stability, but also avoids interference with the radiology scans.

Her prototype has been in use in the Pain and Radiation Oncology Clinics since February 2021, with positive results. Cole is now a second-year Spark-Seed-Spread Investee for 2022. She plans to pilot this device in other services, such as surgery, orthopedics, home health, spinal cord injury, nursing home and radiology.

“We innovators support each other and cheer each other on,” Cole added. “I have made some amazing and lifelong friends. There’s truly a great camaraderie and an awesome Innovation Specialist who keeps me on the right track.”

Despite the challenges of working in a virtual environment, Cole has successfully enriched her professional capabilities through the Innovators Network. She has uncovered new methods to deliver higher quality of care to her patients.

By Allison Amrhein is the director of operations for the VHA Innovators Network and communications lead for the VHA Innovation Ecosystem

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Published on Dec. 24, 2021

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