Sudbury's PET scanner: A dream 10 years in the making

Sam Bruno began the fight for a PET scanner. His family, friends and the community finished it

Hillory Speck, a nuclear medicine technologist at Health Sciences North, demonstrates how a PET scan is done in the hospital's new Sam Bruno PET Scanner Suite on Wednesday. HAROLD CARMICHAEL/SUDBURY STAR

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When Sam Bruno was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005 and started treatment, he did not accept that his life would be cut short.

“He was determined to beat the odds,” recalled his brother Frank at a press conference Wednesday at Health Sciences North. “He asked questions. He talked to others. He read. He made phone calls. It was difficult then compared to now, but he even sought information on the Internet. He did find out about the diagnostic abilities of the PET scanner.”

So Sam, continued Frank, spent several thousands of dollars of his own money to travel to Toronto and pay for a PET (positron emission tomography) scan that found a second cancer site in his colon. At the time, a PET scan was not covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.

“This (discovery) changed the course of his treatment,” said the brother. “Without a PET scan, he never would have known. He knew it was not a battle he had to fight with his own disease, but for others as well … He started the groundwork that evolved from individuals to corporations, involved church groups, local groups even children.”

Sam died in 2010 after having successfully lobbied the province’s Ombudsman to get the health ministry to have PET scans covered by OHIP. But while the tests were now covered, PET scanners existed all over the province — there was even one in northwestern Ontario –—but not the northeast.

A plaque dedicating Health Sciences North’s new PET Scanner Suite as the Sam Bruno PET Scanner Suite was unveiled Wednesday at a press conference marking the suite’s official opening. HAROLD CARMICHAEL/SUDBURY STAR

Bruno’s family took it upon themselves to continue Sam’s fight, a steering committee being set up and fundraising began.

In December of 2015, the Ministry of Health committed to funding the $1.6 million annual operating cost of a PET Scanner in the northeast, to be located at Health Sciences North, providing that the hospital and the community raise the estimated $4.3 million to purchase the machine. The ministry would also contribute $4.6 million toward the $8.9 million total cost of the PET Scanner project.

That $4.3-million was raised, one of the biggest donations ($1 million) coming from the City of Greater Sudbury.

The hospital’s Nuclear Medicine Department then saw a 4,500-square-foot expansion to house the new PET Scanner Suite.

The new Pet scanner arrived in dozens of boxes in June of this year, was assembled, and tests began in July. Nine individuals are currently getting three tests done a week, each test taking 15-20 minutes.

A PET Scan is a nuclear imaging test that uses a radioactive sugar to create images of body functions and metabolism.

“We are finally done,” Frank told the more than 150 people assembled in the Rock Garden Cafe at the hospital. “While it is the end of our journey, it is only the beginning for many others who will have their cancer diagnosed … Sam’s final message is that life is short. It’s not about the tangible things like cars and homes. It’s about family and friends and cherishing the simple pleasures. It’s important to fight for what’s right, to say I love you, and to have a peach (a reference to one of Sam’s requests near the end of his life).”

Health Sciences North is recognizing the work of Sam Bruno and the steering committee in getting the PET scanner to the northeast by naming the PET Scanner area the Sam Bruno PET Scanner Suite.


‘This is a day we wish Sam Bruno could have been here to see. But, we know he is here in spirit and more than 40 family members and friends are here today including his mother Rosina. You should all be so proud of what today in Sam’s memory.’


An estimated 1,100 PET scans will be done in the suite’s first year of operation, saving northerners about 880,000 kilometres in trips to the south.

Floyd Laughren, HSN board chairman, said “this really is a happy day. A hospital is a very stressful place for a lot of people … I hope the happiness here today will permeate throughout the institution and everyone will get a sense this is a good place.”
Laughren said the new PET Scanner will not only be used to deal with cancers, but for other purposes such as cardiac and neurological issues. Another benefit, he said, he is that it will be used for research purposes “to help unravel some of the mysteries of health care.”

Dominic Giroux, HSN president and chief executive officer, said it was a tremendous day, a day that was more than 10 years in the making.

“This is a day we wish Sam Bruno could have been here to see. But, we know he is here in spirit and more than 40 family members and friends are here today including his mother Rosina. You should all be so proud of what today in Sam’s memory.”

A short video that was shown featured Frank, who discussed his brother’s push to get a PET scanner for the northeast.

“He just felt it was unfair the distance he and others had to travel to get fair and equitable access to the machine,” he said.

That push, the video highlighted, included the collection of some 20,000 signatures calling for the northeast to have a PET scanner.

Dr. Ryan Carlson, HSN radiation oncologist, said Sam’s fight wasn’t just for Greater Sudbury, but for all of northeastern Ontario.

Carlson said what a PET scanner does is detect where a radioactive sugar compound (administered in a drink) ends up in the body.

“Imagine looking at a forest and trying to find a spruce tree,” he explained. “Now imagine that spruce tree is lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Carlson said a PET scanner can determine if an area is cancerous, help determine the best possible treatment plan and monitor how that area responds to treatment.

“Having this machine allows us to not only see the location of the cancer, how to treat it, but also eliminate the burden of having to travel to southern Ontario,” he said.

Shayne Smith, chairman of the Northern Cancer Foundation board, said it was great to see that 10 years of hard work by Sam, the steering committee and the community had paid off.

“People gave us their time and money so that others would save their time and money travelling to southern Ontario,” he said.

Anthony Keating, president and chief development officer of HSN Foundations and Volunteer Groups, said “this PET Scanner is truly a great example of what a community can achieve” when an important cause is identified.

Mayor Brian Bigger said it was great to finally see the PET Scanner suite up and running.

“For years, we talked about the day Sam Bruno’s dream would be realized,” he said. “Our community saw a need and a challenge. Our community did not stand back. That’s not what our citizens do.”


‘Having this machine allows us to not only see the location of the cancer, how to treat it, but also eliminate the burden of having to travel to southern Ontario.’


Robin Martin, parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Health, said he understands how important getting a PET Scanner was for the Greater Sudbury area and the northeast, and that $4.3 million was raised to get it.

“Today is really for Sam and, for the most part, others living in northeastern Ontario who will no longer have to travel to larger centres to get the care they need,” he said. “It is one less burden for people struggling and going through challenging health conditions … This project is going to make a real difference and improve the quality of life for patients and families. It demonstrates what we can achieve when government, a community, a hospital, the public, all work together …

“It’s a good day for Sudbury patients and it’s thank to your hard work and dedication to the project.”

Nickel Belt New Democrat MPP France Gelinas said when she first met with Sam in June of 2008, he talked to her for about 30 minutes about his PET scanner issues, but it took only five minutes for her to commit to his cause.

That conversation, said Gelinas, led to pressure on the province’s Ombudsman that the province should make PET Scans covered by OHIP, that goal being achieved in the fall of 2009.

But, continued Gelinas, while PET scans were now covered by OHIP, there were nine PET Scanners across Ontario, but the northeast was the only area that did not have one.

“So, the battle became for equity of access,” she said.

In Sam’s last days, continued Gelinas she made a promise to him.

“I promised Sam I would not give up,” she said, her voice wavering. “I promised Sam his drive would continue.”
Pushing for the PET scanner, said Gelinas, involved collecting names on a petition (some 32,000 names were collected across the northeast) and the launch of a steering committee by Sam’s family and friends.

“Today, I want to say thank you,” she said. “I want to say merci. I want to say meegwetch (thank you in the Algonguin language) to all of you, the hospital foundation, the family, friends of Sam. It wouldn’t have happened without you.”

Brenda Tessaro, a member of the Sam Bruno PET Scanner Committee, said one of the committee’s first fundraising events was a gala that was attended by hundreds of people, and continued to draw strong numbers in the years that followed. She noted that Laurentian University students donated $20,000, the city donated $1 million, and that the committee, which had the backing of all of the community, showed it was not going away.

“Sam exemplified the power of one which leads to the power of many,” she said.

Twitter: @HaroldCarmichae