By Matt Skoufalos
When she arrived in the United States in 2001, Elena Danilova began seeking to continue the medical career she had begun in her native Russia. There, Danilova had worked as a physician’s assistant, but the professional burnout she experienced left her interested in a career in MRI. In 2004, Danilova arrived in California, and enrolled at Sonoma College with the intention of becoming an MRI technologist.
Three years later, she graduated cum laude, with a diploma in applied science, an MRI certificate and $24,000 of debt. But none of that was enough to secure employment in her chosen field. Danilova was told that despite having earned an advanced medical imaging certificate — and despite her schooling as a physician’s assistant — she had unknowingly completed her coursework at a school that was not accredited. She could not work as an MRI technologist without first earning a radiologic technologist (RT) certificate. She would not be able to enter her chosen career field.
“I was furious,” Danilova said. “I was so disgusted. Yes, it was my mistake, but I didn’t know I needed to be an RT first in order to become an MRI technologist. I was very upset because a lot of people, especially recent immigrants like me, could make the same mistake. I started thinking about what I could do. I always wanted to make changes.”
Danilova vowed to her classmates that when she became program director, she’d make changes to prevent the same thing from happening to another student. They started laughing, she said, but five years after graduation, Danilova made good on her vow. In 2010, she joined the Gurnick Academy of Medical Arts, a vocational school headquartered in San Mateo, California, as an interim clinical instructor. By 2012, Danilova was offered a position as MRI program director there.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “I had never been a director. I wasn’t confident if my English language skills were good enough to be understood by students. But I realized it was my chance to start making a difference.”
Danilova worked to help her program continue to grow, and eventually saw it accredited by the American Bureau of Health Education Schools. In 2014, the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) recognized the MRI technologist certificate as suitable for work in the field regardless of whether the certificate holder had previously earned their radiologic technologist (RT) degree as well.
The next hurdle, however, was finding clinical placements for her students. Danilova recalled how one of her former MRI program classmates had waited six months for such a placement, and finally came to Danilova for training. To help overcome that deficit in opportunity, Danilova began working with outpatient and freestanding clinics to place her students in settings where their skills would develop; as she continued to grow her program, hospitals opened their doors soon after.
Her pitch? “Just let us try.”
“We need to train people,” Danilova said. “Imaging departments spend so much money and so much time training new hires. We can train the person according to your needs. You have a student who comes to your facility and already has all the training under his belt; you have time to see who this person is. You will really know if that particular person really fits the culture of your organization.”
It started working. Managers and technologists shifted their mindsets, from viewing student training as a burden, to seeing an opportunity to clear a path for the next generation of front-line technologists. After Gurnick opened its MRI program in Modesto, California in 2014, it opened a second location in Sacramento in 2017. Today, the school offers MRI programs on three campuses — San Mateo, Modesto, and Sacramento — with two rotations at each, and every student is guaranteed a clinical placement.
“The situation is changing slowly but surely,” Danilova said. “We need to cooperate, educators and clinicians, because we fall short of technologists so quickly and so thoroughly that it becomes a crisis. Clinicians don’t want to train their own replacements, and they don’t want to open their doors for student training.”
In 2021, Gurnick extended its MRI program into Florida, Arizona, and Nevada, and into several other states by 2022. Danilova has since been promoted to executive director of clinical development, working to promote medical imaging programs in different states, and establish and maintain relationships to grow them.
“I felt that bringing new, fresh people to the program opens more advantages for the program,” Danilova said, “so I moved into a new position within Gurnick to apply all my knowledge and skills in cooperation with new clinical sites.”
Although it’s neither the career path she could have anticipated, nor the one she might have chosen, Danilova said the challenges she met along the way helped shape her resolve and reveal the depths of her own character to herself.
“When I was in high school and thinking about who I would like to be when I graduated, I didn’t know,” Danilova said. “But I knew who I didn’t want to be. I never wanted to be a teacher. I considered that profession very boring and monotonous.”
“I very much appreciate that my life gave me so many obstacles, and because I had to deal with all those issues and challenges, I learned about myself,” she said. “I’m a fighter; I didn’t know. I also learned that I’m a servant-leader: I like to help people, encourage them, and when they grow, give them all support and assistance.”
“I feel responsible for those people who look at me as a leader, who trust me, and I want to use my own experience to help those who need it,” Danilova said. “I have a goal and a vision to train a team of champions, because those champions will be the ones who make positive changes in the medical imaging world and life beyond it.” •