Spotlight: Erika Padilla-Morales, CNMT, Nuclear Medicine Technologist

Erika Padilla-Morales, CNMT, Nuclear Medicine TechnologistNovember 6, 2020

“Approach each day with humility, as a student” is a daily affirmation of Erika Padilla-Morales, BS, CNMT, a Nuclear Medicine Technologist in UCSF Radiology’s Molecular Imaging & Therapeutics section at UCSF China Basin Imaging Center. Erika was born in the Bronx and raised in small towns up and down the East coast, including Upstate New York, South Central Pennsylvania, South Florida, and the Piedmont region of North Carolina. She attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school.

Erika developed a love for science at a young age. Her aunt Ana F. Morales (“Titi Ana”), a now-retired NYC middle school science teacher, gave Erika her first microscope. This planted a seed that science could be used as a tool to connect with the world around her and inspired her to love the sciences. Titi Ana modeled independence, strength, curiosity, accessibility, openness, and generosity. “I take inspiration from Titi Ana’s teachings and share my Boricua and third culture life experiences to create a safe, and accepting environment for those around me,” says Erika. 

Coming to California, Erika began focusing on a non-profit career in youth education. She learned classroom management, encouraged skill sharing practices, and viewed each student in the classroom as a potential teacher. “I never knew I could be an educator until my web design instructor at the Bay Area Video Coalition asked me to be her teaching assistant in 2001,” says Erika.  “I fell in love with sharing techniques to make each student successful with coding and graphics editing! Seeing a student make a synaptic connection to material is always powerful! So many of my instructors did that for me and I wanted to share those ‘Aha!’ moments with my students.”  From 2011-2014 Erika worked at the UC Berkeley campus as a Creative Communications Instructor with Cal Performances, Ailey Camp – an educational experience using dance to help youth explore their creativity and personal development. Concurrently Erika began studying for her associate’s degree at Laney College in Oakland. 

“As a non-traditional student with learning differences, I doubted my ability to be successful at Laney College,” says Erika. “Dr. Amy Lee, program director of TRiO Student Support Services offered focused, academic counseling, personal counseling, and workshops to ensure college completion.” Dr. Lee’s mentorship and the community of scholars around her, provided Erika with opportunities to develop her study skills, confidence, and resilience.  In 2014 Erika graduated with honors and earned her associate’s degree.   

During Erika’s schooling she learned that another aunt was fighting cancer. The grant was ending for the digital storytelling work she was doing with Streetside Stories, a nonprofit arts education organization, and she began to explore career options. In caring for her aunt, she was introduced to many professions involved in cancer care, including Radiology, and learned how each role contributes to patient care. Erika was inspired by all of the professionals who supported and cared for her aunt during her journey. “Nuclear Medicine seemed like the perfect blend, offering advanced medicine with a human touch,” says Erika. 

Five years ago, Erika was a nuclear medicine student working four jobs and commuting on bicycle to complete her degree. Erika experienced food insecurity, was often exhausted, and at times was unsure if she could successfully complete her degree. Her family, friends, classmates, and instructors never doubted Erika’s ability and commitment, even when she did. “Keep going, Erika!” were three simple words essential to her completing her bachelor’s degree.   

Upon graduation Erika did an internship in radio-guided surgery with Dr. Sergi Vidal-Sicart at the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona, a teaching hospital, in Spain. There she focused on the use of a portable gamma camera called the Sentinella. She was part of a team that imaged sentinel node lymph biopsies with the camera in the operating theater.   

“Teaching hospitals offer incredible care and have a mission to serve their patients with innovation and compassion. The University of California San Francisco is that institution in the Bay Area. Working at UCSF was a dream of mine when I was in Nuclear Medicine school” says Erika.   

In 2016 Erika connected with the NorCalCarciNET community and was introduced to the work of Dr. Thomas Hope. In 2017 Erika got to see Dr. Hope speak at another patient education conference, and took the opportunity to speak to him. “Dr. Hope encouraged me to apply and a few weeks later I was called for an interview. It felt like a dream come true when our Lead Technologist, Michelle Swenson, called with the offer to join the team!” 

Erika supports patients through diagnoses and emotions that can arise as intravenous lines are being placed and blankets are being offered. “There can be a lot of intimacy with direct patient care” says Erika. From toileting to assisting in dress, and occasionally escorting patients to their cars after imaging, nuclear medicine technologists provide essential emotional labor and exceptional medical care. “It's humbling and an honor that patients can feel safe with us to allow themselves to feel vulnerable.” 

Erika expresses gratitude to the entire team of nuclear medicine radiologists. “They are a force to be reckoned with regarding their innovation and research. They are absolutely approachable,” says Erika.  She is also grateful for her China Basin imaging team in particular her first mentor, Gabriel Magana. “Gabriel is an incredible mentor! Thanks to his patience and guidance I was running the SPECT/CT modality solo in less than six weeks! As a recent graduate and admirer of UCSF, I wanted to get the procedures right. When I injected my first lymphoscintigraphy solo I was absolutely thrilled!” 

Erika’s interests outside of work are diverse and very adventurous. They include kite flying, “It’s a practice in physics with my hands. The conditions need to be just right and suddenly the kite is aloft in the air and you marvel at it from the ground,” and the magical experience of spelunking into caves. “Slipping down into the earth and seeing bats in their natural habitats and walls of gypsum crystals is breathtaking!” Pre COVID-19, Erika could be found enjoying live music, and participating in the arts and theater.  She even took a fire eating class. “I got to experience a class at the Crucible in January of 2017. It was on my bucket list and such an awesome experience. I had been a fire safety volunteer for about 10 years before experiencing my first class and I loved the magic of playing with fire in that way!”  To feed her soul Erika aids people living with food insecurities through volunteer work. “Food programs were a staple for me while I was in school and create an incredible feeling of community,” says Erika.  

Erika aims to provide compassion and hope to others. “Compassion is the first tool one has in patient care,” says Erika. “Hope is another tool. A lot of adversity is amplified in the world. Some of it is used to inform us, some of it is used to demoralize us. Hope allows us to breathe more easily, filter through the noise, and keep going.” 

By L. Delgado

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