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Paula Flud of the Non Invasive Cardiology department at John Muir Medical Center in Concord, explains the Echo machine, ultra sound to the heart, in the stress room inside their new Nuclear Medicine and Non-Invasive Cardiology department that opened in March in Concord, Calif., on Thursday, April 24, 2014. The new state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, will collect data faster, limits radiation exposure and decrease scan times by more than 1/2, improving the patients experience. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD -- To see a human heart beating in three dimensions, to watch the blood flow in and out, is a marvel of technology that still sometimes astonishes Howard Min.

"To my mind, it's mind-boggling," said Min, a cardiologist at John Muir Medical Center at Concord. "And it's not just pretty pictures. It allows us to see things, understand things and actually do things we would have never imagined possible.

"In some ways, it might put me out of a job someday, but I'll be glad for it," said Min, medical director of the hospital's cardiac catheterization lab. That's "because someday when I'm a heart patient, don't poke me unless you absolutely have to."

John Muir Medical Center in Concord ¿invested $9.8 million in new integrated nuclear medicine and noninvasive cardiology department, which opened in March. It is in a 6,000-square-foot space where the hospital's former emergency department used to be, said Linda Womack, executive director of medical imaging for the John Muir centers in Concord and Walnut Creek. In addition to hosting updated technology, the new center allowed expansion of the departments' space by one-third and retained the same number of employees, 22, that the old, separate nuclear medicine and noninvasive cardiology departments had. And the center's layout, influenced by staff suggestions, was designed for health care efficiency, said Paula Fuld, a noninvasive cardiology charge nurse.

The center also added two new cutting-edge nuclear medicine "gamma cameras" costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each, said Stephen Fuller, clinical coordinator of the nuclear medicine section. They each feature a hybrid camera, which includes single photon emission computed tomography, known as SPECT-CT, and hybrid CT scanning systems that substantially upgrade the previous nuclear medicine machines, both more than 12 years old.

The cameras take X-rays of the body, notably where small amounts of radioactive material, known as "tracers," are injected into or ingested by the patient. This helps physicians visualize the function of an organ, tissues or bone. Those pictures help with the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of diseases, and the new machines collect data faster, limit radiation exposure and decrease scan time by more than half.

Nuclear medicine has "actually been around since World War II, but it never gets good press," Fuller said. But it has spurred some remarkable medical advances in the diagnoses and treatment of many illnesses -- including bone, liver and thyroid cancer -- by helping physicians get a functional snapshot of the inner workings of the body with remarkable specificity.

Likewise, the field of noninvasive cardiology, which allows doctors to get key information without breaking the skin using echocardiograms and electrocardiograms, can claim many of the most dramatic advancements in cardiology in the past 10 to 20 years, Min said.

"This technology has allowed us to do things like fix a valve from inside the body, without having to make a big cut in the skin," Min said. "It's allowed us to fix a valve by using a tiny little clip from the inside, instead of opening up the heart."

Twenty to 30 years ago, if you needed a valve evaluated, doctors had to poke you and stick catheters in you, and the information it yielded wasn't as complete, Min said. "Now I can get 98 percent of that information from here and I can save those invasive evaluations for when I'm pretty darn sure I have to fix something."

"I'm a gadget guy, and some of our most amazing toys are here -- but they are toys that help people," he said.

"So there are a lot of people now who don't have to get poked, cut, invaded," he said, "because we now have the technology to see things from the outside that we didn't have before." he said.

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.