Who are medical laboratory scientists? We call ourselves clinical laboratory scientists, medical technologists, med techs, medical laboratory technicians, MLTs, or simply “techs.” Around the clock each day we provide vital information to physicians. We perform a variety of laboratory procedures from identifying microorganisms to providing blood for emergency transfusions. We’re trained in clinical chemistry, hematology, microbiology, and transfusion medicine. We are dedicated to delivering accurate and precise, high quality results to physicians. These providers rely on us for the diagnosis and monitoring of patients. I’ve heard it said that “without the lab, you’re just guessing.” We are a somewhat unknown but very important part of the medical field.
Many of us joined this profession because we are organized, have a strong attention to detail, are intrigued by science, and want to help others. We want to work in the medical field, but may not really want patient contact. In my case, I knew I loved biology, chemistry and math, had an analytical mind, and pay a great deal of attention to detail, but I didn’t really want to deal with “people,” so I thought I had found the perfect profession. Working in a lab, in the basement, I wouldn’t have any patient contact. Little did I know that for many years I’d be looked up to as an “expert phlebotomist;” the tech the phlebotomists would come to when they missed a “tough stick.” I was often called to the floors and the outpatient lab to draw patients. I worked 3rd shift where we were our own phlebotomists. And little did I know that I’d discover a love of teaching, and actually enjoy standing in front of a group of students, teaching them. I never thought I’d enjoy public speaking, but now I speak at conferences and symposiums and love sharing my love and knowledge of Hematology and Transfusions Medicine with my audiences.
I’ve been teaching for years, but continue working in the laboratory as well, because I feel the best teachers are the ones with first hand, current experiences to share. When I work with my students, I like to coach them to think problems through and to solve puzzles instead of simply memorizing facts. Med techs often choose the profession because they have a strong ability in science, but also keen investigative instincts, and enjoy the challenge of solving puzzles. We graduate with a plethora of knowledge, but it doesn’t stop there. We need to take this with us to our jobs, build on it, and use it every day to learn to think through and solve these puzzles and problems quickly and accurately. It’s a profession where you never stop learning.
So, where is this going? Graduation is coming, and a new set of med techs will be set forth into the labs of the world, armed with knowledge and ready to learn yet even more. So, what is it really like working in a hospital lab? Here’s a little glimpse of a typical day in the Hematology lab.
It starts a lot like the Beatles tune: “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Found my way downstairs and drank a cup, and looking up I noticed I was late…” Which reminds me, I remember reading somewhere that medical technologists are the profession that drinks the most coffee. But, so much for being side tracked. Waking up at the crack of dawn, rushing in the door, clocking in before 7 am, on a typical morning we all check the schedule to see where we are scheduled for the day and to see who called out sick. On this day, there was only one sick call, which necessitated a little juggling of the schedule because we were already short staffed. (We can’t wait for you new grads to start!) That was our first problem of the day solved. And then we got a call that the 2nd heme tech was stuck in traffic. Techs are very adaptable, and can think on their feet. Looking around, I suddenly noticed I was alone in Hematology, and our CellaVision was down. On top of sick and late calls, the overnight tech had left early. I jumped right in. I took inventory of the situation, and saw messages about 2 pathology review fluid slides that were left from the previous shift. I took out QC to warm up, started finishing up the morning run and worked on the CellaVision. Soon my partner for the day arrived, just in time to hear the XN analyzer start beeping. Did I mention that techs are really good at multi-tasking?
I got the CellaVision up and running again: second problem of the day fixed. After shutting off the alarm on the XN, we began investigating, reran the specimen, called the floor, and discovered it was a contaminated sample: third problem of the day solved. We had a morning of calling critical labs to the providers, trekking across to the other building to bring the pathology reviews to the pathologists, and handling sample barcode issues. I took a quick look at the clock and realized it was 9:30 am, and we had just finished the morning QC and maintenance. Time for that coffee! (I actually am apparently one of the few med techs who doesn’t drink coffee, but I managed a quick break and a cup of tea.) Our hematology techs assist with bone marrow collections, making the slides, processing them and bringing the slides to the pathologists, then to surgical pathology and cytology. The whole process can take 1 ½ – 2 or more hours, and this day was our lucky day. We had two scheduled bone marrows, and another one that was a surprise. Three bone marrow and only two techs in the department!
While we were up in oncology and interventional radiology and processing bone marrows, the CellaVision acted up again, and I had to call service. I left a message for evening shift that service would be coming in that afternoon. A reagent ran out and I had to fill out the reagent replacement log. One other things that med techs do very well, is documenting what we did. There is a saying in the lab that “if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.” We had a couple racks of unreceived specimens delivered to the department, and had to resolve the unregistered samples. Stats kept coming in, we had a T4T8 to run, and lunch time came and went, with neither of us getting a real lunch. Body fluids started coming in, three in a row. And guess what? One of them needed a pathology review! Med techs also get plenty of exercise when the pathologists are in a different building than the lab. The next phone call I got was from a second-shift tech who was running late. It seemed like the start of the day all over again! Before we knew it, it was 3:30 and time to go home.
We had a full day, a great day. It makes me feel good to know that we are doing such vital work. I feel proud that our team works well together. Not every day is quite this busy, but the busy ones are when we learn the most.
To all the students I have worked with this year, and all students everywhere, welcome to the lab! We need curious minds, and new techs who are ready to unravel the puzzles and solve the problems we see every day. We need new “diagnostic detectives.” I am very proud every year to see or new graduates accept the challenge and become medical laboratory professionals. 2020 Graduates, welcome to our world!
-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM BB CM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 30 years. She’s worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.