When Melinda Bechtel was asked to be the new director of UNLV’s ultrasound program, she readily obliged.
The program had made huge strides since she had first enrolled as a student in 1998. For starters, students could actually use ultrasounds in the ultrasound program.
“We didn’t have an ultrasound machine," she recalled about the state of the program in the late 1990s. "We didn’t have a classroom. We didn’t even have a major yet.”
Now, Bechtel is planning to retire in June, more than 25 years after she came on board. She has trained hundreds of ultrasound professionals to deliver quality patient care across the country.
UNLV's Ultrasound Program Grows
Under Bechtel's leadership, the UNLV ultrasound program has evolved far beyond its fledgling foundation, when it was bereft of a single ultrasound machine. The program has acquired multiple ultrasound machines, ultrasound-specific chairs, gurneys, beds, and additional equipment to provide students with a quality educational experience.
“It’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment considering that, for the last 12 years, she has been the only full-time instructor in the program,” said Steen Madsen, chair of the Department of Health Physics and Diagnostic Sciences. “Melinda is the one who established the affiliation agreements and coordinated our clinicals. She’s served as both our clinical coordinator and program director. That is incredibly rare.”
Students spend their first two years in the program assessing images and learning the human anatomy.
“After they spend those first two years looking at images, our students are able to scan each other while they learn the proper protocols and really understand what they should be looking for,” she said. “Then we go even further and make them scan other people.
"They have to know their anatomy as well as the physicians do. The liver, the diaphragm, the gall bladder — all the parts. We call doing ultrasound the closest thing to being a physician without going to medical school.”
After completing their first three years on campus, students spend their senior year working one-on-one with preceptors for their clinicals before they graduate.
“Our students are carrying 3.4 to 3.8 GPAs in the sciences. They are very bright,” she said. “They are also visual learners. They have to see something, memorize it, and understand the pathology.”
Bechtel was working in a local hospital in 2005 when Madsen approached her about joining the program full time. She agreed, maintaining her day job at the hospital while building UNLV’s ultrasound program at night.
Six years later, Madsen asked her if she was interested in taking over as the program’s director. He believed she could advance the program to the next level.
“I spoke with our dean at the time and told him that if this program was going to succeed, we needed to have someone who could be our interface with the clinics,” he recalled. “Melinda was a sonographer for many years and already had those relationships. She’s kept the program running like clockwork and has put in a lot of effort which shows her passion for educating these students. She’s done an exemplary job.”
And her leadership style and personal touch has made her a favorite among students.
“Melinda has been such a great instructor,” said Tsiyon Desta, a student in the ultrasound program. “You can visit her during office hours and ask her about the program, how the clinicals are going to be, or anything else. She’s going to answer those questions and will always be there for you.”
Desta hopes to work as an abdominal sonographer after she graduates, though she’s also interested in high-risk pregnancies. While she’s new to the program, she’s grateful to have Bechtel as a mentor.
“Melinda is always there for me and the other students, and it’s definitely made our journeys into the program much easier,” she said.
Bechtel is proud of the fact that more women choose to pursue a career in ultrasound. A main reason for that, she said, is due to the profession being borne out of working closely with OB/GYNs.
She is also proud that UNLV’s ultrasound program has separated itself from most other schools, offering a bachelor’s degree instead of an associate.
“As a technician, you need to have that bachelor’s degree if you want to get promoted. A two-year degree will no longer do it,” she said.
Ultrasound Offers Bechtel Her Ultimate Career Path
After graduating from the University of Akron in 1976 with a bachelor of science in natural sciences, Bechtel worked as a respiratory technician in Cleveland, Ohio, and would later pass her board exams to officially become a registered respiratory therapist while also learning how to become a sonographer.
She spent nearly two decades working various respiratory therapy jobs within the Las Vegas Valley’s hospital systems after she and her husband moved to Southern Nevada in 1980.
In the late 90s, she set her sights on advancing her education and, unbeknownst at the time, would eventually end up changing careers in the process. She had worn thin of her career in respiratory therapy; a field she had worked in for most of her adult life.
While taking courses at UNLV in the hopes of teaching science to middle school students, she learned about the university’s ultrasound program. It was a field that had once again piqued her interest.
She enrolled and never looked back.
“I eventually got bored with respiratory therapy, but I’ve never been bored with ultrasound,” she said.
Bechtel worked as an ultrasound technician in UMC’s radiology department. The following year, she took a different set of board exams, this time to officially become a licensed sonographer.
As she prepares for her retirement next year, she marvels at how the program has grown to offer a path for preparing students for a high-demand career across the state.
“We had eight kids enrolled in the first year. Then over the next few years it became 12, and then 15. Within a few more years, we were in the 20s,” she recalled. “When our program first started, we would ask the hospital supervisors to take our students for clinicals and a lot of the times, we were told no.
"Now, a lot of the hospital supervisors are graduates from our program. Our students are considered assets, and people want to hire them."