Commentary: Going MI way

June 16, 2006

Taxi cabs are the gateway to this country for thousands, maybe millions, of foreigners. For every engineering and support job we outsource, a wheelman finds work in the U.S. So it was in San Diego, where I met Ahmad Shah Najibullah (not his real name).

Taxi cabs are the gateway to this country for thousands, maybe millions, of foreigners. For every engineering and support job we outsource, a wheelman finds work in the U.S. So it was in San Diego, where I met Ahmad Shah Najibullah (not his real name).

Ahmad, who I soon learned was from Afghanistan, picked me up in front of the convention center hosting the 2006 Society of Nuclear Medicine conference. He was immediately transfixed.

"Nuclear bombs," he said. "Nuclear bombs."

"It's not nuclear bombs," I explained as we drove away from the building, with a diplomacy approaching that of his native leader (or at least I hoped) President Hamid Karzai.

"Nuclear bombs ... nuclear energy ... nuclear medicine," he said. "Nuclear bombs ... nuclear energy ... nuclear medicine. They are all the same."

I've been traveling in cabs for nearly 30 years, and this was the first time I looked for the door handle before arriving. Finding it made me feel better, even though by then we were on the freeway.

I soon eased to DEFCON 3 with the realization that Ahmad really wasn't hostile so much as he was trying to make intelligent conversation. His version of that included a discussion of national figures, all of them prominent U.S. women, notably Condoleezza Rice, whom he would like to date. It wasn't long before I was missing our discussion of nuclear power.

As the seconds seemed like minutes and the minutes like hours, this 20-minute trip provided me the chance to reflect on the term "nuclear." Twenty years ago the imaging community shunned this term for precisely the reason it so appealed to Ahmad. Within several years of its commercialization, nuclear magnetic resonance imaging became MRI for every company except Picker - and we all know what happened to them.

So I have a renewed sense of understanding when it comes to the movement by the nuclear medicine community to embrace molecular imaging.

At the SNM meeting, it was molecular imaging this and molecular imaging that. The cover of the SNM annual meeting program features the line, "Discover where the future of molecular imaging will take you." On the same cover, bottom right, is the SNM logo against a stylish icon of the atom and below it the phrase, "Advancing molecular imaging."

The Society of Nuclear Medicine is doing for its members what Kentucky Fried Chicken did for the Colonel. And I can see why.

Had I stepped into Ahmad's cab under a molecular rather than nuclear banner, I might have escaped much anxiety. I would not have fretted whether Ahmad had a hidden agenda or worry to this day that he might, at some point in the future, be giving our secretary of state a ride. If it was "SNM ... Advancing molecular imaging," all of this might have been avoided.

But, I wonder, will moving to an acronym conjure other problems? A few years ago, in a restaurant in Canada, I was approached by a waiter who had overheard me speaking with a friend about the conference. He was crestfallen to learn that the "N" stood for "nuclear" - and that it wasn't an ampersand.

Sometimes, I guess, there's just no good solution.