The patient from Elma had a problem. As a working ranch hand, he regularly needed to ride a horse, but every time he did, his right leg would develop an intolerable ache. After a vascular surgeon discovered that he had no pulse in his right foot, the man was referred to Dr. James Bonifield of South Sound Radiology (SSR).
“I did an arteriogram and found a really tight narrowing in the iliac artery in his pelvis that fed that leg,” says Dr. Bonifield. “At that time we had just gotten the materials to do angioplasties, where you insert an expandable catheter and open up the vessel. This guy was my first case.”
The vessel opened, blood was restored to the leg, and the pain went away. “That was so impressive to both me and the surgeon that he’s kept me informed about that patient over the last 30 years,” says Dr. Bonifield. “I’ll get a note every now and then saying, ‘By the way, the cowboy is still doing fine.’”
That’s just one of many, many stories Dr. Bonifield could tell from a career that has spanned four decades and fundamentally changed the role of radiology in Washington State. As an early advocate of CT scans, PET scans and MRI, he helped to advance the field throughout the region, with the foresight to see their value before they became standard practice. As a result, SSR had some of the first machines of their kind in the 70s and 80s. He officially retired on December 30, 2016 although he plans to continue practicing part time in the area of pain management.
The field has changed dramatically since his career began, with technological leaps that have made the aquisition of images less invasive and more comfortable for patients. When Dr. Bonifield did his residency at U.C.L.A. Harbor General Hospital in the 70s, no MRIs, PET scans, ultrasounds or CT scans were involved. In fact, when South Sound Radiology first hired him, they had recently purchased a CT scanner and they requested that he get trained in how to use it before moving to Olympia. The problem? Only three existed in the U.S. at that time.
After learning that no American university could accommodate his need for training, Dr. Bonifield and his wife Kathy contacted Dr. James Ambrose in Wimbledon, England, co-developer of the CT-scan and performer of the first CT head scan in 1971. “He said, ‘Bloody hell! Love to have you! Can’t pay you a cent!’” Bonifield recalls. He ended up borrowing $10,000 and moving himself and Kathy to England, where he got the training he needed and Kathy assembled a formidable collection of CT images.
Upon returning to Olympia and SSR, he encouraged Providence St. Peter Hospital to purchase a whole body scanner, but at that time, the technology was still deemed ‘unproven.’ Nevertheless, SSR agreed to lease the machine if the hospital would provide room for it and within months it had proven its value.
“The same scenario occurred with PET and MRI,” says Bonifield. “Finally, we agreed to go ahead. We had the second PET scanner in the state.”
The new technology paid dividends for patients. “I’ve read that the advent of the CT scanner made as large an impact on health care as the invention of penicillin,” he says. “When I first got here, I had to go to the operating room multiple times with surgeons and they always had a big chalkboard with all of the day’s work on it. Half of the 25 to 40 patients every day said ‘exploratory laparotomy.’ That meant cutting open the abdomen to find the reason for pain.”
Today, exploratory laparotomies are a thing of the past because of CT, the great majority of the time, the medical team knows what they’re going after. “It’s much better on the patient,” he says. “It’s evolved tremendously. That’s one of the beauties of radiology. It’s a very dynamic field that changes every year, sometimes with big changes, and sometimes with incremental, smaller changes. We have to continually learn and that keeps it interesting.”
Dr. Bonifield originally planned to become a surgeon but changed his mind after doing a half surgery, half medicine internship. That left him wondering what he really wanted to do. “I’d been in the Air Force before and I was in the armaments and electronics division at a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base, and my job was to work on the tail defense system of the B-52,” he says. “In order to do that, I spent two years in school in Colorado to learn all about computers and radar, so I was pretty interested in gadgets. I kind of put the two together and radiology seemed like a good fit.”
Although he is now technically retired, he plans to continue practicing part time in an area that he finds deeply fulfilling: pain management. “That’s the majority of what I do now,” he says. “It’s mostly of the spine and joints. We’ll do a needle injection, a mixture of steroids and anesthetic, and if that takes care of the pain, the doctor will then know the source.”
In one recent case he performed a nerve root block on a specific area of a woman’s back and her pain went away immediately. “She got off the table and she hugged me and the tears were coming,” he says. “It was the first time she’d been out of pain in a long while. Those things stick in your mind.”
Although he never pushed any of his four sons toward medicine, two of them ended up in the field – Aaron, an ICU nurse, and Ryan who is now an interventional radiologist. “He would come into the hospital a lot and hang x-rays with me when he was growing up,” says Dr. Bonifield. “He saw the hours that I put in, so he knew it wasn’t going to be a cake walk. But he’s thrilled with his choice and that warms my heart. We talk almost every day now and share cases. That’s been very gratifying.”
Dr. Bonifield’s legacy will continue both through his sons and the legions of patients he’s treated – and will keep treating – in his tenure. His 40 years of expertise and knowledge has helped shape the field of radiology throughout Washington state and his teachings and values will live on through the body of radiologists at South Sound Radiology.
For more information about South Sound Radiology, visit www.southsoundradiology.com or call 360-252-9301.