In Memoriam: Kelly H. Austin, CHP


by Sean M. Austin, CHP

Kelly H. Austin passed away unexpectedly on 17 August 2011 from complications related to a previously undiagnosed arteriovenous malformation (AVM). She was in Rhode Island at the time, vacationing with me and our family. Kelly managed the Dade Moeller Radiation Safety Academy training operations and worked in the Gaithersburg, Maryland, office as a trainer and consultant. She was certified by the American Board of Health Physics and was a member of the Health Physics Society (HPS) as well as its Baltimore-Washington Chapter.

After graduating cum laude from Dickinson College (Pennsylvania) in 1987 with a bachelor of science degree in physics, Kelly returned to the state of her birth, Maryland, and began a 17-year career with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health (NIH), where we met. I was drawn to her because of her enthusiasm, strength of character, and directness. You always knew where you stood with her. We started dating soon after she began working at NIH. It was difficult keeping this budding romance from our coworkers, and I am sure a few figured it out before we made it generally known to all. You really get to know someone when you are a young health physicist cleaning contaminated patient rooms and toilets.

Kelly’s initial assignments at NIH were to provide health physics coverage for the Nuclear Medicine Department, the Positron Emission Tomography Department, Radiation Oncology, Diagnostic Radiology, and approximately 100 research laboratories in the NIH Clinical Center and other biomedical research laboratories. We managed to find time to get married in 1991, honeymoon in Hawaii, and buy our first home. And, as that was not enough for her, Kelly completed and received a master of science degree in radiation science from Georgetown University, graduating with distinction in 1993.

Kelly and computers did not get along. We always joked about this when she would get a new one and would invariably have difficulty operating it. “Crash Kelly” we called her. Her fingers were constantly pressing buttons on the keyboard as the hourglass calmly rotated on the monitor. Despite this, she was offered more and more responsibilities. In 1994, Kelly was promoted to supervisory health physicist in the NIH Radiation Safety Branch, serving as chief of the Clinical Center Unit. In this role, she was responsible for direct supervision of four health physicists. Kelly also served as the assistant chief for the Radiation Safety Operations Section and assisted in the supervision of twelve health physicists. Her last position at NIH was serving as the training program specialist in the Division of Radiation Safety. Kelly managed a diverse radiation safety training program that provided education to more than 4,000 individuals per year and included more than 130 specialized courses. Amazingly, during all this she managed to raise two daughters, Marlie and Morgan, and manage her third child, me.

In 2005, I convinced Kelly to leave federal service and try her hand at consulting with the Radiation Safety Academy. It did not take long for her to make her mark. Always worried that she was not pulling her weight, she developed new training courses and quickly took on lecturing in other Radiation Safety Academy courses. I told her that it would take 6 to 12 months to become comfortable in the new position. I assured her she would quickly make her mark with the company, and she did. She loved teaching, especially when the students were enthusiastic. She always took extra time to work with the students, particularly in the mathematics of radiation safety, a challenge for any person thrust into the role of radiation safety officer (RSO) or radiation safety technician when he or she had little knowledge of radiation. Kelly was quickly retained to provide consulting services to several clients and found her plate pretty full. She was definitely up to the task.

Wishing to add depth to her already-impressive expertise, Kelly worked diligently to become certified by the American Board of Health Physics in 2006. She served as a consultant and temporary RSO to several clients in the mid-Atlantic area and had been serving as the RSO for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Martinsburg VA Medical Center, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Yet she still had time to tend to her children and attend numerous plays, soccer and softball games, concerts, recitals, and meeting with teachers. We could not have managed our lives were it not for the “Family Calendar” always at Kelly’s side.

By 2009, Kelly once again found herself managing a training program. This time it was the Radiation Safety Academy training, now part of Dade Moeller. She managed all operations online and at training centers in Gaithersburg, Maryland; Las Vegas; and Acton, Massachusetts. In 2011, Kelly authored a chapter titled “Minimizing Radiation Exposure” in Perioperative Safety, edited by Donna S. Watson. Kelly was well loved for her positive attitude, warmth, and generous smile. To honor Kelly, Dade Moeller has established a scholarship program in her name through the Health Physics Society

We loved to travel. When I met Kelly, I promised her “I would take her places.” Little did she know those places would include Rhode Island and other New England states, Disney World (several trips, she loved the place), Jekyll Island in Georgia, Las Vegas, California, Germany, France, and others. She often attended HPS meetings and made several presentations over the years. One of our most memorable HPS trips was in 1989 in Albuquerque. I recall we had taken a trip to Sandia Peak with a colleague from NIH. Unfortunately, none of us heard any messages about a return from the mountain. Here we were, enjoying the evening views, when we decided it was about time to head back down. Much to our surprise, there were very few people left at the top of the mountain. Upon our return to the base it was clear the tour transportation back the city was long gone. Someone from the tour group returned to the mountain fearful a few people were left behind. We and two other lost souls crammed into a small station wagon for the trip back to the hotels. Good memories.

About AVM
Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are extremely rare. When they occur, they are usually located on the surface of the brain, as in Kelly’s case, or on the spinal cord, where they are often fatal. Unfortunately, due to the relatively low numbers of cases of AVM in the general population, research dollars are hard to come by. Neither any of the large pharmaceutical companies nor NIH grant funding is available for AVM research. Since Kelly’s passing and talking with colleagues and friends about AVMs, I am surprised at the number of people who have also been afflicted with this condition. Fortunately, many of these people have survived. But for anyone with this condition, it is life changing at best and deadly at its worst. I urge you to consider supporting research to investigate the possibility of finding a drug or drugs that might be effective in treating AVMs. A pharmacological treatment would represent a significant improvement to patients with AVMs, sparing countless surgical procedures and massive medical radiation doses and saving lives. I ask that you consider making a donation to the UAMS Vascular Anomalies Research Foundation, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 4301 Markham Street, Little Rock, AR 72205.