Henry Konecny Pioneered the Science of Radiology at EGH
Henry Konecny launched the Radiology Department at Elkhart General Hospital in 1942, but his love for the science started much earlier. During his teenage years in Montana he had an after-school job cleaning the labs at the local hospital. “They had this new x-ray machine, and I was quite curious about it,” recalls Konecny. “The doctor showed me how it worked, and each day I’d learn a little more about radiation and x-rays. I guess before long I was hooked.”
Over the next few years Konecny continued to learn – by teaching himself. “There was no formal education in radiography back then. I went to college to learn anatomy, but as far as radiation and x-ray technology . . . that was on me,” he says.
When Konecny came to Elkhart, the hospital had modest x-ray equipment and no dedicated staff. “There was no ‘department.’ Just some ancient machines and a room full of old x-rays. Films were literally scattered around the floor,” he says. “I had a lot of work to do.” That attitude paved the way for what has become one of the most advanced diagnostic radiology departments in the region.
Konecny recalls the “technology” he found at Elkhart General, referring to the x-ray machines as “shock equipment.” And for good reason. The machine components included bare electrical wire that carried the power from one part to another. “You tried your best to keep the patient from touching those wires, but usually someone would get a good jolt at least once a day.”
Another example of the state of the art equipment: during the x-ray procedure, the patients often had to hold the film themselves, positioning it so it would collect the targeted beams after passing through the body. “The technician was busy operating the machine, and because there was often no one else to assist, we had to put the patient to work.”
In the early days of the department, x-ray use was generally limited to bone injuries. But, largely through his own research and experimentation, Konecny learned how to manipulate the equipment, adjusting the balance between power, filters, and film characteristics. The result was a more refined x-ray, and doctors now had images that would reveal abnormalities in soft tissue like the liver and intestine – a milestone in the medical importance of x-ray technology. “I remember the first time we used x-ray to examine a patient’s heart,” he says. “The surgeon’s plan was to inject a contrast solution into the artery, and I was to take a series of x-rays to show it moving through the aorta. The only problem was that we didn’t have the equipment to do that . . . so I built it. It involved a plywood platform on top of the exam table that allowed me to slide the film across the table as we made the exposures. Not very pretty, but it worked.”
One of Konecny’s most lasting accomplishments was the establishment of a formal training program for x-ray technicians. Since there were no schools in the country to provide the appropriate education, he created his own curriculum and conducted classes, often recruiting promising students by networking with area high school science teachers. “Shortly after I arrived at Elkhart General, I hired an assistant who had impressive credentials from Johns Hopkins. But I soon discovered that most of her experience had been in animal research. I knew I’d need to develop a reliable staff in order to grow the department, so I set about building my own training program.” Over the years, hundreds of students became x-ray technicians under his guidance - accomplished professionals who are now working in hospitals all across the country.
When asked about any particular standout moments in the history of his department, Konecny recalls the Palm Sunday of 1965 when twin tornadoes ripped through the Dunlap community, destroying virtually everything in their path. “We had more than 300 patients in x-ray that night,” he states. “We saw everything you could imagine - and, of course, not everyone made it. We worked through the night and well into the next day. Radiologists, technicians, and volunteers came from neighboring communities to pitch in. No one went home, and somehow we managed to treat every one of those patients. I’ll be forever grateful for all the help we got that day.”
Konecny was instrumental in ushering in the numerous advances in radiation technology that evolved at Elkhart General over the years. CT (computed tomography) scanning integrated x-ray technology with the computer and made it possible to take many x-rays of the same area at slightly different angles, creating a cross-sectional image – a major step that led to the use of radiology in the early diagnosis of cancer and other diseases. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) came on the scene in the early 80s, and was used initially to examine the brain and spinal cord. Images of the chest and abdomen were not of sufficient diagnostic quality as they were blurred from respiratory and heart motion. But in the mid-80’s, with the advent of better equipment, faster computers, and high field magnets, MRI now had the ability to produce good quality images from all parts of the body.
With Konecny at the reins, Elkhart General was at the forefront of these advances in technology. Before long, the Hospital’s Radiology Department had gained a reputation as a premier diagnostic center, with the latest technology and some of the most talented physicians and staff in the region. And he accomplished all this while still leading a fulfilling family life with his wife and 15 children, many of whom still reside in the Elkhart area.
Joe Wind, MD, a Radiologist who worked with Konecny for some 40 years, said, “Henry was a master teacher who taught scores of radiographers and helped build a truly outstanding Radiology Department at Elkhart General– a department that today is equipped with the latest technology, including PET/CT, ultrasound and mammography, all in completely digital format.”