Inside the Vancouver Convention Centre

An inside look at what goes on beneath the white sails of the Vancouver Convention Centre reveals a world that’s often seen only with X-ray vision.

Gary Jones at the Vancouver Convention Centre | BCBusiness
Actor and Second City alumnus Gary Jones momentarily leaves the world of sci-fi to explore the world of science.

An inside look at what goes on beneath the white sails of the Vancouver Convention Centre reveals a world that’s often seen only with X-ray vision.

Have you ever stared at something for so long that eventually you no longer saw what you were looking at? Like, say, your unpaid Visa bill or the litter box or your bald spot? I live on Vancouver’s North Shore and I’ve stared across at the gleaming white sails of the Vancouver Convention Centre for years. Eventually, I stopped seeing them. I even lost track of its name. Then, one day it occurred to me: “Hey, I bet that means it’s a centre for conventions in Vancouver!” Once I had that concept nailed, I realized that I had no idea what conventions convene under those sails throughout the year, bringing untold riches into our city. And I’m betting that you don’t, either.

Having appeared regularly in the television series Stargate SG-1, I’ve attended countless sci-fi conventions around the world. To me, a convention is a convention is a convention. Apparently not. We all know about the home show and the boat show, but as I browsed the Convention Centre website, I wondered how many of us are familiar with the American Roentgen Ray Society, for example, one of countless conventions that come to Vancouver, yet go unnoticed by the locals.

What is the American Roentgen Ray Society, and why does it need to convene for five days here? My first thought was that Roentgen Ray may be a legendary European boxer with a huge following, kind of like America’s Sugar Ray. Turns out that William Roentgen was the German inventor of the X-ray, something, incidentally, that a lot of smashed-up boxers can thank the dude for. It earned him the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901, which, as a result, allowed him to easily punch above his weight in the world of science. The society is named after him, rather than calling itself the X-ray Society, which would obviously require secret handshakes, clandestine meetings and decoder rings.

After spending two days hanging out at the Convention Centre recently, amidst hundreds of radiologists converging from around the globe, I now see things differently. Well, more that I “image” them differently because, as I learned, things are seldom as they seem. These people spend their lives snapping pictures of our innards and then deciphering the results. So after a while, I wasn’t just inside the Convention Centre, I was in the bowels of the Convention Centre. And those magnificent tented sails rising up out of Vancouver Harbour? Lungs and ribs.

Radiologists are über-serious about what they do, as was evidenced by the lectures being given. At 10:00 Monday morning, it was “Pitfalls and Common Errors in Pediatric Chest Imaging.” At 10:30 it went straight into “Pitfalls in Abdominal Imaging,” then at 11:00 we heard about “Pitfalls in Emergency Nuclear Medicine,” followed at 11:30 by “Pitfalls and Classic Errors in Pelvic CT Scans.”

Chatting with some of these dedicated radiologists, I said, “Okay, guys, you’re freaking me out. What’s with all the pitfalls and errors?” I’m thinking that, like me, a lot of us assume that once we get a CT scan or an MRI, we find out exactly what’s wrong with us. No more guessing. Why else the year-long wait if we’re not going straight to the top of the X-ray food chain for answers?

They were quick to point out that this field of medicine is very interpretive. And very re-interpretive. And very re-re-interpretive. Tumours mimic infections. Infections mimic tumours. Sure, something’s there, but no one really knows if they have cancer or just some goofy liver nodules, until more and more images are taken. This, in turn, creates a culture of imaging in which people who show up to an emergency room expect, nay, insist upon an X-ray being taken.

And, since the technology gets better by the day, hospitals encourage more and more scans. But until we have robots working in hospitals, we will have to deal with human interpretation. If any one message came across in this convention it was: “We are busting our asses to decrease the margin of error for you, the patient.”

Nothing drove that point home more than when I attended the “Problem-solving in the Scrotum,” lecture. Wow. I sure learned something about myself. I learned that there are only so many giant slides of smashed-up testicles that I can handle. Slides with titles like “Blunt Testicular Trauma,” “Testicular Fracture” and “Testicular Rupture” hit me on a primal level. I scribbled in the dark: “Note to self: never play lacrosse.”

In keeping with the radiologist’s creed that “nothing is as it seems,” I wandered into the exhibit hall to check out some of the booths. There was a book for sale underscoring this directive, titled The 8th Edition of the Atlas of Normal Variants that May Simulate Disease. The foreword had a quote from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore: “Skim milk masquerades as cream.” Thirteen hundred pages of X-rays in which something looks a lot like something else.

The other booths boasted very cutting-edge and super high-tech equipment. I peered across the hall at what I thought were some really cool, futuristic body scanners. They turned out to be plastic napkin dispensers for the coffee station, but the point is, just like in the world of radiology, you must be on guard for mimics. Take me, for example. I tried to pass myself off as a serious journalist to the Roentgeneers. To their credit, being the expert radiologists that they were, they saw right through me.