Nuclear medicine technology and PEZ candy have little in common. When asked about the interesting juxtaposition present in her EvergreenHealth imaging room, nuclear medicine tech Jennifer Whiteley explained that’s just the point.
“Everyone who comes here is afraid,” Whiteley said. “They’re afraid of the tests, afraid of the results. If we can calm them down and have them leave with a good feeling, that’s really rewarding for me.”
A massive cupboard full of colorful PEZ dispensers seems to do the trick.
Whiteley grew up with PEZ, eating the candies and saving the dispensers. With an English father and a Chinese mother, Whiteley studied at an English expatriate school in Hong Kong until she was 18, then came to the United States to study nuclear medicine technology at Seattle University. For the past 31 years, Whiteley has worked at EvergreenHealth.
She said she has always loved PEZ candy, but her collection didn’t begin in earnest until the early ’90s. It started with some vintage dispensers, then a couple Looney Tunes, then began the Star Wars shelf — her most prized PEZ possession.
“I had them all over the counters, in every nook and crevice in the room,” Whiteley said. “It kind of drove management crazy, because I had them everywhere. So, finally, they got me a cupboard for it. It’s my own obsession, my own quirk, but it’s just as much for the patients.”
Every day, Whiteley works with eight or nine patients for about an hour or two each. Where X-ray and MRI machines look at anatomy and structure, nuclear medicine technology looks at function. Whiteley injects patients with radioactive material, then scans specific body organs to see how the organ is functioning.
“We do injections in the room, and sometimes the injections are quite painful,” Whiteley said. “They’ll often look away, and (the PEZ) gives them something else to focus on. It’s especially for kids, but it seems to distract patients of all ages.”
The nature of her work is really sensitive, and one of the most difficult parts is the diagnosis process. Whiteley said she does a lot of scans for cancer, and patients can see their scans on the screen, but they don’t understand what they mean. No one wants to find herself in that room, so Whiteley does whatever she can to brighten their spirits.
Her PEZ collection is, in part, meant to be a welcome distraction, but it’s evolved into so much more. Whiteley has formed unexpected, long-standing relationships with patients over it.
“A lot of patients will remember what I don’t have, and they’ll come back a week later, a month later, sometimes even a year later for a follow-up scan, and they’ll come with a new PEZ for me,” Whiteley said. “They’ll notice one missing, then come back saying, ‘I’ve got your Miss Piggy!’”
More than 20 years into building this collection, the PEZ cupboard continues to grow alongside her connections with patients.
“The most rewarding part is the interaction,” Whiteley said. “Calming people’s fears.”