Rob Kaarto is a free spirit and will be the first to tell you that he does not make his work his life. As an EEG Technologist he is able to continue his journey searching for truth in what is real and imagined through his study of brain waves. He has found comfort in his job and the flexibility it allows him to enjoy his other passions in life such as film.
CCB: Can you start by explaining how you came upon this career?
RK: I was a medic in the Navy for about a year in the 1970’s. I wanted to go on to more school. I had already gone to college and wasn’t satisfied with that experience. I was either going into nuclear medicine or EEG and I chose EEG. I’m interested in the anatomy, physiology, and psychology of the brain so I thought this was a natural extension of that.
CCB: How did you seek that out after being a medic?
RK: I went and applied and was chosen. I was sent to Washington DC. It was only a six month school which I thought was nice because I didn’t like school. I got a lot of my good training when I went and worked in the Boston hospitals after being in the military. I started off at Boston City Hospital and went to Boston Children and other places. EEG is interesting because it’s the recording of the electrical potentials coming from the brain, the energy from the neurons in the brain. Any kind of process going on leaves its imprint on the brain wave.
CCB: What do those readings tell you?
RK: You are looking at the different shapes, size, and frequency of the wave forms. You are doing a test on anyone with neurological disorders, maybe seizures, or strokes. It gives another picture than MRI’s or CT Scans. If someone has passed out or had a seizure you can do one of these recordings. A seizure is when the neurons in the brain fire off randomly and are smashing into each other wildly. Different types of seizures are really apparent on the EEG. You don’t have to be having one of those seizures clinically to see that. In the recording it will tell the neurologist that you do have seizures and need to be on medication. It wasn’t just a normal fainting spell. Say some part of the brain is malfunctioning or there is a tumor. A growth in the brain might get in the way of the normal electrical potentials. It would create a wave form. EEG is like a language in itself. You could tell to look in this area; there is a slowing of the wave forms or some change that is other than normal.
If you are working at a major hospital it’s much more interesting. Now I don’t. I have an easy job where I just work a couple of days a week at a neurology clinic on Staten Island, which is very comfortable for me because I don’t like to work very much.
CCB: Does it work similarly to an EKG?
RK: Very similar to an EKG, which is the recording of the heart rhythms except obviously it’s more involved.
CCB: People only come in if there is some type of abnormality?
RK: Abnormalities or there is a whole list of neurological problems people can come in for. It depends where you are working. You can have a fascinating career working in a major hospital where you are doing brain death studies. (“When the brain is essentially dead or there are no electrical potentials coming from the brain.”) I used to run the sleep lab at Boston Children’s Hospital and that was really interesting dealing with any kind of sleep disorder.
CCB: When you go to work at the clinic is there a typical day or routine?
RK: It’s kind of typical. I am more of a neuro-diagnostic technologist because I don’t just do EEG’S. I also do evoke potentials. Instead of recording the normal electrical rhythms of the brain you are evoking a response by having the patient receive a stimulus and you are recording that reaction from the brain. They receive some sort of stimulus whether visually or auditory. These tests are used commonly with MS. If the nerve path ways aren’t working right, they are slowing down… Of course the timeliness of the wave length is going to happen much later and you can see, oh we have a problem. (These tests include rapid clicks in the ears, images flashed on a screen, and other electrical stimulus.)
EEG always goes hand in hand with the history of what the person has and other testing. Now I work in a clinic where it’s routine. If you really wanted to be stimulated by the work you would not want to work in a regular neurology clinic. You’d work in a teaching hospital, you’re in the O.R. or intensive care unit getting very interesting patients and that does not happen in a regular clinic.
CCB: Is there a specific type of patient coming in such as the elderly?
RK: They run the gamut, but maybe more elderly. It depends what type of neurologist you work with, what they specialize in. I deal mostly with seizures, MS, strokes.
CCB: What happens when you come into the office? Do they give you the patient’s medical history and you work accordingly?
RK: I’m set up in a system where I can walk in and out. I tell them when I want to come in and they schedule my appointments. I can go away, travel. The neurologist will see these patients and decide what type of testing they need. Sometimes I do regular EEG’s or sleep deprived EEG’s. I look at the chart when I see the patient. Bring them into my office. They sit in a chair and if they were having an EEG I would apply about twenty-one electrodes which are small gold discs connected to a wire to the head. Make sure the patient is comfortable. I’d record different montages, where from the brain you are recording different electrical potentials at that time. You go from left to right, front to back. If there was an abnormality you would have mapped it out, crisscrossed it.
At the end of the recording you would have possibly a twenty minute recording of the brain activity. The doctor would take a look at it and say it looks normal or we have to investigate more here. It’s amazing what you can tell from the recording of the brain waves. For me it’s a very easy, pleasant day. I don’t have difficult patients because I am in a clinic. Working in a hospital is a fascinating thing to do but after a while you get burned out. I enjoy going to the movies a lot so I’d rather be working two days a week and having fun the rest of the time.
CCB: Can you just clarify what EEG stands for?
RK: Electroencephalograph. Encephalo means brain, electro means electric.
CCB: How did you learn about your career?
RK: I was in the military which isn’t the normal way to go. You can go to school for this, maybe a year or two, some technical colleges. It’s almost like X-Ray school or go to some large university hospital. Once you start doing it you’d start learning. You should be sitting next to a neurologist who reads the EEG each day and that is how you learn. You learn along the way. You are not going to learn a lot working in some clinic.
CCB: Do you think there are certain qualities that make a good EEG technologist?
RK: The main thing to get a good recording is you have to make the person comfortable. Any kind of nervousness or muscle tension comes across on the EEG. You have to get the people relaxed. I think that’s my specialty. You have to be good with people.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing this career?
RK: It’s not a real money making field for people who want to make a lot of money. Any of the technical fields in healthcare are very comfortable. You have a structure set up and you can be stimulated by the job you are doing and have great healthcare benefits, they are very good on vacation time. What’s good about it is that you can get a job wherever you want once you have the experience.
CCB: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
RK: Your job as an EEG tech is to find out what is real and what is not and that interests me. Having a better idea of what is really going on. Does he really have this? Sometimes they are making things up. Personally I’m really fascinated with human behavior. To be able to put the physiology with the human behavior is one of the reasons I went into the field.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of the job?
RK: I’ve seen it all now. In the beginning there are more challenges.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job as far as studying brain waves?
RK: How it is a language. How much information is available.
CCB: What is the coolest thing about your job?
RK: The schedule. My personality suits it, I’m good at it, and I can schedule my patient whenever I want. I would not take a job that does not afford me that flexibility because I don’t make my job the center of my life. I don’t believe in that. I believe in more hedonistic things. (Laughs) I believe in the ride… It’s about the journey not where you are getting.