When delicate or precision equipment arrives, expert installation team handles placement

Thanh Ho
Than Ho leads the UT Southwestern team that installs expensive new pieces of equipment whenever they’re delivered to the campus. He’s standing in front of one such piece of equipment: the Varian TruBeam linear accelerator, which also provide advanced radiation therapy.

By Jeff Carlton

If there’s a piece of expensive, state-of-the art medical equipment at UT Southwestern, chances are good that Thanh Ho helped install it.

The Director of Design and Construction has worked on more than two dozen radiology and radiation oncology projects, including the CyberKnife, the Gamma Knife and the Vero SBRT. Mr. Ho’s role – building the physical space that allows UT Southwestern physicians to operate the most advanced equipment possible – is critical in delivering world-class care to patients.

“He has a background in working on technically difficult and demanding projects,” said Kirby Vahle, Vice President for Physical Plant Administration. “There is nothing he can’t figure out.”

In helping set up the Vero – an advanced system for delivering noninvasive treatment to cancer patients – in the radiation oncology department’s new 16,000-square-foot facility, Mr. Ho had some unique challenges. His team had to drill out thick concrete flooring, dig a 5-foot-deep concrete footprint and meet specifications for a piece of equipment never before installed at a North American institution.

“It was challenging, and he had to be creative, and it worked out great,” said Dr. Tim Solberg, Vice Chairman of Radiation Oncology, Professor of Radiology, and head of Medical Physics and Engineering. “We were breaking new ground all through the project. We have had groups of other engineers come to visit and look at the Vero room, specifically, to see how we went about it.”

Nothing tested Mr. Ho’s problem-solving skills as much as the 7-Tesla magnetic resonance image (MRI) system, a gigantic device similar to an MRI machine that is housed in the Bill and Rita Clements Advanced Medical Imaging Building. When it was installed, in 2006, there were just four 7-T devices in the world and only one other in the U.S. Mr. With that few installs, Ho couldn’t simply download an instruction manual from the Internet.

The project involved building 24-inch-thick concrete walls, and then shielding those walls with 16-inch-thick steel plates. Another tricky issue: pouring concrete that was so level that its surface never varied by more than one-eighth of an inch, when the general standard is one-half of an inch.

“My concrete vendors said it couldn’t be done,” Mr. Ho said.

Naturally, he and his team solved each of these construction issues, as he has for virtually every other challenge that has crossed his desk in his five years on the job. His physical plant crew doesn’t just install equipment. It also manages more than 200 construction and renovation projects across campus each year in the medical center’s 10.8 million square feet of building space.

“All of these projects that he does, they come in on time and under budget,” Mr. Vahle said. “Thanh is a guy who wants to figure things out, and he does. You just can’t teach that.”

Now 49, Mr. Ho became Mr. Fix-It on a piece of Panhandle land – Abernathy, Texas, by way of Saigon. In 1975, the 13-year-old Vietnamese native fled the captured capital, now Ho Chi Minh City, with three siblings on a U.S. military helicopter, leaving behind their mother and four more siblings. They wouldn’t be reunited for 20 years.

The helicopter took the fractured family to an aircraft carrier, which took them to Guam. From there, they flew on a transport plane to Fort Chaffee, Ark., uncertain of their future but hoping to stay together. One of his sisters was soon adopted by a Lubbock-area cotton farmer, who subsequently agreed to adopt Mr. Ho and the rest of his siblings.

Mr. Ho didn’t yet speak a word of English. But he soon developed the work ethic of a farmer, pulling weeds out of the West Texas cotton fields and repairing agricultural equipment.

“I did everything: driving tractors, maintaining equipment, working on tractor engines and truck engines and well pumps,” Mr. Ho said. “I learned a lot, and that’s why I became a mechanical engineer.”

Mr. Ho, who graduated from Texas Tech University, said career satisfaction comes from appreciating how his team’s work is applied on a daily basis.

“To see that piece of equipment operate and how that impacts the normal person who comes here, that’s incredibly rewarding,” Mr. Ho said.

Dr. Solberg holds the Barbara Crittenden Professorship in Cancer Research.