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Happy Lab Week!

I’m excited! This week is National Medical Laboratory Professionals week. There are 13 of us employed by the Gunnison Valley Hospital Lab, and we are going to celebrate! Our little family of scientists are very proud of our profession, obscure though it may seem. I have one of those jobs that is difficult to describe to anyone who asks me what I do. Long pause….”so you’re not a nurse?” Hospitals on TV or in movies sometimes show doctors looking through microscopes or getting handed “lab results” while chatting with a colleague in the hall. Did that anonymous person behind the lab service window just squirt the blood into a computer which detects abnormalities and then spits out a page of printed results? Ha!

Our little town has an awesome clinical laboratory. We do more lab tests here than some big city hospitals, since those facilities tend to split different lab test menus with the “hospital across town”. We don’t have that option. We need it done fast, and we feel privileged to have top-of-the-line equipment and the educated staff to perform the testing, even if it’s the middle of the night. As a member of an exceptional team within an outstanding hospital, I proclaim the right to brag a little!

It all starts with our phlebotomy (blood drawing) team, which has a critically important job. The correct volume of your blood must be obtained from the correct vein, into the correct pre-treated tube, at the correct draw time, using the correct needle and collection technique without hurrying too fast nor taking too long. The tube must then be labeled immediately with the correct name and date of birth, so that there is absolutely NO chance of confusion. Portions of the blood are mixed or cooled or warmed or incubated, and/or separated according to the specific test(s) to be performed. There is a lot to know besides just drawing blood (just ask one of us).

We are busy! Specimens come from every direction: the doctors’ offices (even in CB and Lake City), the Emergency Room, the inpatient population, the nursing home, home health, and an endless stream of residential and vacationing outpatients who carry orders from doctors near and very, very far. Our phlebotomists decipher doctors’ handwriting and order the correct testing, among thousands of possible diagnostic tests. The “Phlebs” are also responsible for transporting some of your blood (or other parts of you) via courier or airplane to other labs that do the more unusual types of testing. There is pretty much zero tolerance for error in any of these tasks, so it all takes a very detailed and professional approach. We have five very compassionate, capable and experienced Phlebotomists here at GVH.

The hospital lab is divided into several departments. We can test for parasites, or isolate bacteria from sick patients and determine which antibiotic will work to stop the infection. We make sure your blood transfusion goes smoothly – and no, it’s not just a matter of matching blood types. We make sure your surgery specimen gets to a pathologist. We test urine, stool, spinal fluid, joint fluid, and “other” fluids for signs of disease. In blood testing, we identify or measure kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease, viral or bacterial infection, leukemia, anemias, cancer, inflammation, immunity, hormones, enzymes, medications, vitamins, blood cells, and clotting factors.

Each lab department has a supervisor, who oversees everything that takes place within. Here is where words like Reagent, Analytical, Calibration, Verification, Documentation, Precision, Reproducibility, Accuracy, Quality Control, Proficiency, Competency, Sensitivity, Specificity, Incubation, Interference, Correlation, Compliance, Maintenance, Critical, Diagnosis and Prognosis are used every day. Whew!

Are you starting to get the picture? It’s a complex job. We don’t just churn out test results like hamburgers. Well, ok. Sometimes it feels like a high-paced multi-tasking job that resembles that of a chef and his kitchen staff. However, our “recipes” are vigorously precise. We have configured, maintained, and tested the “ovens” and other equipment. We know how to coordinate the meal perfectly, and identify the slightest inconsistencies. Every step is documented. We know how to troubleshoot the system and how to adjust or repair the complex analyzers that we use to “cook” with. We test all the “ingredients” before using them. We examine every result before it goes out, and then again.

The medical technologists here each possess a bachelor’s degree and have triumphed through a grueling year of special training and internship in all aspects of medical diagnostics. Of course the finale is a BIG TEST BOARD EXAM! We passed it, and we each have years of experience behind us now. We work together and play together. If you spent some time with us, I think you’d see uniqueness and teamwork. It has been evident to me that nobody thinks quite like a medical lab scientist. We are Gunnison’s team, we care about the people in our community, and we have the blood, sweat, tears (and overtime) to prove it. And we love our jobs.

What else do we test? We test each other, constantly, making sure we are all expertly competent in performance of the most up-to-date procedures. That’s just another part of what makes us CAP (College of American Pathologists) accredited, which is the most stringent accreditation a lab can have! We just passed another intense CAP inspection last week, with flying colors. There is a saying that “Behind every good doctor is a good Med Tech.” I’d say it’s a whole team. And the world needs more of us. Please share what you’ve just learned with someone who loves science and is about to decide on a major! Tell them to call and let us show them what we do, and to wish us a Happy Lab Week!

Janie Burgess, Medical Technologist, American Society Clinical Pathologists (AMCAP)