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Life In The Lab

The vampires, the blood suckers, takers, testers… They often get met with a bit of anxiety when we see them coming. And it's nothing personal, it's that thing in their hand right? The needle. Well these unspoken heroes of healthcare are called phlebotomists or lab professionals and the entire week of April 23-29 is dedicated to celebrating the contributions they bring to health care.

Coming into the lab you hear a constant hum, these spinning plates testing specimens on a timed regimen makes the lab almost pulse with it's own energy, but when you sit down with the lab team for coffee you get to understand a bit more of what makes the lab tick. We spoke with lab professionals Anna Cobb, Linda Massey, Aimee Bunac and Jill Graff all about their history in lab tech and what their day to day is like.

A typical day is a constant state of movement and timing, "We start with our am draws, our inpatients, so we draw whatever the doctor orders, then we come down here and begin right away on those," said Aimee Bunac. "Most of the quality control, the maintenance of the machines are done by the night shift team; so when the am person comes in it's all ready for us to put the specimens in the machine early. We look for critical volume, too low or too high, then we will repeat and confirm that we get the same results is this really true. If it's really true and it concerns their diagnosis we call the nurse or the doctor to inform them of the results. So that's our typical morning, most are low sugar etc. Then it starts to kick in to our outpatient draws. We may have with these tests, depending on the tests 30-45 minutes so we may get some time to have a coffee, an apple but most of the time not a full breakfast before we go right back and see what the results are."

This work is constant time management and the team on the second floor of Memorial Hospital of Converse County works together to help each other with a myriad of needs, especially if a machine needs to be serviced as soon as possible. "We have an instrument down it's usually a four hour trip for the service man to get here, so that does not make our Doctors very happy," stated Linda Massey, a 40 year veteran of the MHCC lab. Aimee agreed: "We are called the Vampires, the Mad Lab Technicians, but we're also Engineers, because we open those machines trying to work with the customer care hotline to solve the problem. We walk through all of the steps with the service line in order to make sure we complete the steps to fix the machines wherever possible and make sure they are working."

So what draws a person to this profession? "I started out as they called them Unit Secretaries back then, but I worked for the Nursing Floor and they had an opening for a phlebotomist and the girl told my boss that she was leaving in two weeks so my boss, Dolly, wondered what she was going to do and I said 'Well pick me." and she did," chuckled Massey. "So I got certified in phlebotomy and was interested in becoming a tech and then I got my certification as a lab tech. I've always enjoyed being on the scientific side…"

Jill Graff started out at UW in Molecular Biology, "I received my bachelors degree and realized I would have to a) go to grad school (which at the time I was not interested in) or find something else to do. I knew about the medtech program there at the time so I applied for that and I love the work in molecular biology, I love the processes that happen and this was very similar in a lot of ways so I could take that and there was more immediate gratification. You see a patient get well. you talk to somebody and they feel horrible, and the next week they come in for a follow up and they feel so much better: so you have some gratification some ownership of patient health. I came here as a student lab tech, while Gay Bolln was here as our lab manager and she offered me a job and Ive been here ever since."

Everyday in the lab brings it's unique challenges, but one thing is for certain, the patient's needs come first. Especially when you are dealing with blood draws the lab team knows how to work with patients and who among them has a talent for exceptional draws while keeping the patient calm, "Our front liners help them with their comfort, asks them questions, anything to distract them. So the next thing you know you are asking "Do you need anything else?" and they are surprised like "Oh you're already done?" We can get them to be chatty, we are often in lab but we like to see people and interact with them and watch them progress."

"Sarah is a very good phlebotomist, I think she has a knack of visiting with them. She's one of our primary front runners with a patient and provides a good first impression." added Massey noting one of the long time phlebotomist with MHCC, Sarah Self.

Suffice to say the thought or presence of a needle can make some fairly queasy, and even the toughest characters can ask for a butterfly needle. "It's not fun to have a needle and get poked several times, if we have a second poke we call another tech to limit the amount if we can't get it the first time," reflected Bunac. But with the stick comes a healthy dose of compassion also, "When a patient comes in they are fasting, they are hungry they want their coffee, some can be a bit grouchy and they don't feel good [coming] up here and get stuck with a needle so yeah we try everything we can to make them comfortable, including giving them goodie bags when it is over."

A friendly blend on the team and a recognition of each one's talents seems to be their natural stasis, and Anna Cobb the lab and radiology manager at MHCC noted, "It really does get worked out organically and goes hand in hand with working with the patients." They certainly seem to work very well together and each can reach out innately to the other to get a second opinion: "If you ever feel like you have a weakness you can always ask another tech to help and check results," reflected Bunach. "I will ask whomever is there to counter check my work. We have our weaknesses and we have our strengths and we call on each other. We know for our front liners who has the good draw. You have to have a good team otherwise nothing will be done."

Like any science though, it's not just what the machines produce but a mix of state of the art technology, good judgement and a healthy sense of the lab techs own gut instinct. Graff noted, "Every test has a normal range, so anything that flags outside that range… and this may sound a little un-scientific but many times it can be kind of a gut feeling. Something just isn't right, that [result] needs more investigation."

Bunac agreed, "If it doesn't look good to us, we work with the doctors to let them know our results and find out whats going on with this patient. So we always ask when a test comes back outside of the normal range if they want to send it on for further investigation." Great communication, and patient centeredness extends deep in the lab as each one of the techs agreed in turn that making sure that any critical results are thoroughly communicated to the provider or even passed along to a pathologist for a second look.

When irregularities are present it does not always mean a dire situation but it always does a conscience good to be put to rest, "It can be viral that makes it look funky or it can be a leukemia or something very severe." said Massey. So it is a good practice to have a healthy responsibility on one's own personal health and get checked when you can and follow your providers orders to come in. "I have a family experience, I had an uncle that went to the health fairs and would get his PSA checked, and one year he missed and ended up having Prostetic Cancer in that years time, I mean some people don't believe they need to have it done, but a lot of cancers can be treated and taken care of early if you catch it soon enough. So I believe if you want a healthier stronger life you need to follow through with your blood work. It also helps your doctors regulate your medicine."

Health Fair approaches have recently been rotated into the Labs everyday, and now the standard panel of tests are available year round in Memorial Hospital of Converse COunty's labs: "Patients don't have to go to Casper or Wyoming health fairs, we can do that right here in the lab without Doctors orders. Our patients can pay out of pocket, and they are very nominal fees. So we do quite a few of those everyday. All you have to do is tell admission I want a health fair blood draw and they will send you our way." concluded Cobb.

If you see one of our great lab professionals this week, or any week really, be sure to say hello and congratulate them. So much of what comprises our health records is determined within their lab and their approach to patient centeredness helps our entire health care community know from a cellular level how a patient is progressing.