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It’s hard to miss the big pink bus when it pulls alongside the Erie County Medical Center dialysis clinic to plug into the building and start transmitting images it took from the road.

Kathleen E. Michienzi is another story. She’s the unassuming breast cancer survivor who manages what officially is called the “mobile mammography coach.”

The coach hit the road in July 2012. It’s designed to soothe fears and help detect breast cancer among women, most without health insurance, in underserved communities across the region. Its staff conducted almost 1,600 mammograms during its first year in Western New York communities. That led to 145 follow-up imaging tests and several diagnosed breast cancer cases.

The coach was started by the ECMC Foundation and is run by Dr. Vivian L. Lindfield, founder and medical director of WNY Breast Health, as well as director of breast health services at ECMC. Michienzi manages her private practice, as well. The coach bears the words “THE SCREEN TEAM” and “BREAST HEALTH IS OUR GOAL,” and it includes a phone number to call for an appointment: (855) 464-7456. Inside, it houses two digital mammography units, along with dressing rooms and a ladies room. The Buffalo Sabres and First Niagara sponsor the vehicle.

Michienzi, of Hamburg, a West Seneca East High School graduate, has a degree in radiology from Trocaire College. In the 1980s, she played a key role in the first magnetic resonance imaging machine in Western New York. “I trained in Toronto. MRI was a new modality, so there was lots to learn about it,” she said. “I had the fortunate experience of building and managing the MRI.”

That led to a national medical sales job, then a job closer to home with a radiology group in the Northtowns.

“The week of the grand opening, in spring 2003, I found out I had breast cancer. Life changed drastically at that point,” she said. She underwent 14 surgeries, most because of breast reconstruction complications, and chemotherapy.

“When I got through my healing process, since I was able to work again – thanks to the help of a lot of good doctors, staff, family and friends – I decided I would like to do something in the area of breast cancer,” she said. She worked with a Northtowns breast surgeon until she got her current job in February 2012.

What’s the mission of the mobile mammography coach?

We’re committed to doing very good work, but we’re also committed to making sure the money’s getting spent very wisely. We’re committed to all the Western New York counties, but we have had so much work in Buffalo to this point that we only have gotten outside Erie and Niagara counties two or three times.

Does somebody have to call? Can you just drop by?

We work closely with a couple of partners: The National Witness Project, an organization for Afro-American women who’ve had breast, colon and cervical cancers (that goes) into underserved areas and educates women on the importance of getting annual mammograms, their Pap smears, their colonoscopies when they’re the correct age. We hold events with them. Typically, they’re at churches. We’ll take a walk-up, but we try to gather as much information as possible before the scheduled appointment so we can provide good services.

How did the idea for the coach get off the ground?

It was initiated by the Buffalo Sabres, the Sabres alumni, their wives and Jody Lomeo, CEO of ECMC. Traditionally, the Sabres wives do events to raise money, and they wanted to do something to help women in the community.

What challenges come with a mammography center on wheels?

It’s one thing to get the image done, but now we’re mobile. How are we transmitting images to a radiologist so the radiologist can do an interpretation? For a transcriptionist to do a report? Then get it out to the patient’s primary care physician or OB/GYN or whoever referred them to us. We were faced with making sure we did that in a very timely manner. … What happens sometimes at the end of the day, we come back and we hook up Ethernet cable over there (at the dialysis clinic), and we send the images to the radiologists for them to read.

How is the mobile unit staffed?

If we have a full schedule, which can be 50 ladies, we’ll have two technologists and the navigator, as well as a driver. We have a registered nurse who works with us. And then there’s the ancillary staff. We need the radiologist, we need the transcriptionist, we need the medical coder and biller. There’s a whole group of people it takes to have a mammogram done.

What reactions have you heard from women?

There’s skepticism initially as they approach the coach, but when they walk up the stairs and look in, they say, ‘Wow.’ I think they like that it’s more one-on-one. You’re dealing with the same person, or two people. It’s not like you’re talking to five people and they’re handing you off. If there’s fear, it’s the fear of the results.

Q. What reaction does the driver get from passing motorists?

A. We get a lot of beep, beep, beep, the thumbs up. I think people think, ‘What is that crazy pink thing?’

email: refresh@buffnews.com

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