By Theresa Edwards Makrush
Each year the National Association of Veterans and Families (NAVF) honors companies and organizations that support the veteran community and honors a standout employee who exemplifies the true meaning of values taught by the military: sacrifice; passion for what they do; one who demonstrates the ability to improvise; adapt and overcome; and most importantly leadership characteristics in their daily work.
UF Health Proton Therapy Institute’s machinist Ray Lewis was selected as a 2016 Champion of Veterans honoree. He was honored at an awards banquet on May 6 at The University Club in Jacksonville.
One of the essential components of a proton therapy patient’s treatment is the creation of customized devices — compensators and apertures — that are made in the exact size and shape of the tumor area being treated. The aperture is milled out of solid brass and matches the width of the treatment area. The compensator is milled out of clear Lucite that matches the height of the treatment area. Stacked and attached to the end of the treatment nozzle during each treatment, these custom devices shape the proton beam as it passes from the proton beam line into the patient.
Ray Lewis is one of the people responsible for fabricating these devices. Ray joined the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute staff as one of its first employees, after retiring in 2005 from a 20-year career in the Navy. “I’m what you call a conventional machinist. Lathe, milling machines, shaping machines, boring mills, grinders. Typical machines you would find in a good size machine shop,” said Ray. He planned from the beginning to make this a job he could stay with until he retires from civilian work. “I love the job. I remember when I came in and did the interview I told Dr. Li [Zuefong Li, DSc, director of medical physics], like a lot of military people, I commit and stick with it.”
Evidence of his level of commitment started from day one. Ray recalled, “I started on the seventh of August and the following week was when they were going to treat the first patient. When I started and we were doing orientation in the Tower [a separate building from the proton therapy institute], they called me out of the orientation to fabricate the device for the first patient.” He willingly left orientation and made the devices that would be used to treat the first patient on August 14, 2006. From that point forward he has milled countless devices for hundreds of patients.
During his nine years at the institute, Ray has gained the admiration and respect of everyone he works with. He has been nominated for the UFHPTI Shining Star Award, a peer-recognition program at the institute for employees who exemplify excellence.
Jeff Rexford is the site manager for IBA, the manufacturer of the proton therapy equipment. Jeff and his team are responsible for running and maintaining the proton therapy system. Jeff said, “I have known Ray since I first began working for IBA in January of 2007. In that time I have had the pleasure of working closely with him on many technical projects. Ray has taken his position to something much higher than a normal machinist’s position. He has shown great inventiveness and dedication to improve many aspects of the machining process. Ray’s dedication and professional expertise has driven a few important improvements to the development of patient plans. It is with Ray’s knowledge that we will also increase the efficiency of the in-house fabrication, and reduce the outsourcing of patient specific devices.”
Ray is known for going above and beyond the call of duty. He says it is because he enjoys the work. “As with most places what makes it enjoyable it’s usually the people that you work with. The people I interact with, the dosimetrists, the quality assurance people, the physicists, I haven’t really had a bad experience with any of these people. Basically, they let me do my job. I know what my job is and they allow me to do it, and I like that,” Ray said.
The chief dosimetrist Debbie Louis oversees the department that uses computers to design and program the treatment plans. These are then transferred to the machine shop to create the devices.
Debbie said, “Ray is always willing to adjust his work schedule to accommodate clinic needs, even at the last minute and always with a smile. If he says he can get something done, you can be sure it will be done. Ray is a pleasure to work with and a real asset to UF Health Proton Therapy Institute and our patients.”
As the senior-level machinist, he is often called upon to make the more complex patient-specific devices. Even on his days off and vacation days, Ray willingly comes in to help if needed. Holly Mostoller is the human resources director and recalled one such occasion. “On August 8, 2014 in the early morning Dr. Hunter was in need of having new apertures made for an eye patient. The machinist on duty that day did not start until later in the afternoon and Ray was on vacation. I was unable to reach the on-duty machinist first and then reluctantly called Ray to see if he would be willing to come in to quickly produce the equipment for Dr. Hunter so the patient could start treatment right away. Ray gladly agreed and came right in and completed the process allowing the patient to start. All on his last day of vacation and right before the weekend. Ray is a very dedicated employee who helped out in a time of need when it was not required of him."
“I have personally always found Ray to have the most positive attitude every day he comes to work. He is exceptionally loyal to UF Health Proton Therapy Institute and very passionate about the cancer treatment we deliver here,” said Holly.
Ray’s military service spanned a period that included several significant historic events. He remembers in 1991 transporting and loading ammo on submarines to support Operation Desert Storm. He was at Guantanamo Bay when the mass migration from Cuba and Haiti in 1994 occurred and the whole base was covered in tents and camps as people sought asylum in the U.S. In 2001 he volunteered to do a second tour at Guantanamo in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. An old friend of his had returned there working at the brig and he needed some people to help. So Ray volunteered and served as Assistant Brig Officer in Charge, including a six-month stint as Officer in Charge while waiting for a replacement due to personnel retirement. He stayed there until 2005 when he retired as a Petty Officer First Class after 20 years of Navy service.
Ray settled down in Jacksonville, where he had purchased a home while he was stationed at Mayport (1998-2001). During his time in Guantanamo Bay, he formed many close friendships, people who have also retired from the Navy and settled in Jacksonville. His best friend still lives in Guantanamo, a Cuban exile and his wife who live on the base. His best friend has cancer, and Ray helps by sending essential medical supplies. “I’m always anxious when I take the medicine to the base for shipment. I worry about missing the transport. He needs it to keep alive,” Ray said.
It’s the ultimate care package from a man who always goes above and beyond the call of duty.