Since 2008 I have served as the Associate Medical Director and the Medical Director of Transfusion Medicine in a large academic medical center. In addition to overseeing the operations of our transfusion service, I also spend several days per week in our apheresis unit. We currently see between 10-20 patients daily for a wide range of therapeutic apheresis procedures performed by our 5 apheresis nurses including stem cell collection and lymphapheresis procedures for stem cell transplant and CarTcell therapy, respectively. These procedures can last from 90 minutes to 6 hours and includes both outpatients as well as acutely ill patients in our critical care units. Typically we perform procedures from 8 AM to 6 PM but there are frequent requests for procedures that last beyond these hours and occasionally in the middle of the night for life threatening conditions. Despite the long hours and unpredictable days, this provides an opportunity to bond with patients over the hours and days they spend in our apheresis unit.
I remember the first time I met Reed. He was sitting on the side of his hospital bed and was bald and pale in stark contrast to his dark blue pajamas. Although he was thin, I could tell that he was a much bigger man before chemotherapy and the transplant ravaged his body. I introduced myself and he was pleasant and engaging despite how ill he was. He had recently undergone 2 autologous stem cell transplants and now with recurrence of the multiple myeloma he had received his brother’s stem cells and was suffering severe acute graft vs. host disease (GVHD). His entire gastrointestinal (GI) tract was under assault as he was diagnosed with Grade IV GI GVHD and was losing liters of bloody stool daily. Despite the abdominal pain and cramps, I never saw him without a smile on his face. He had been treated with high doses of immunosuppression but his GVHD was unresponsive and now we were called in to perform photopheresis, which has great results for skin and pulmonary GVHD but has not been as effective for GI GVHD. In fact, all our previous patients with Grade IV GI GVHD lost their battle.
The bone marrow transplant physician advised Reed that his prognosis was poor and that he should get his affairs in order. His response to the BMT physician was, I am not leaving my wife to raise our three children by herself and I am going to walk out of this hospital. We performed photopheresis twice a week every week and gradually his symptoms improved. His hair started growing back, his color returned, and he kept his word and walked out of the hospital. He continued photopheresis twice a week every two weeks for 2 years. During that time, he met my son who was only 8 at the time and I met his wife and children. He always asked how my son was every time he came for his treatment and what activities he was involved in. When he finished his 2 years of photopheresis, he brought every pathologist and nurse a long stem red rose and thanked us for saving his life.
Several years later, Reed started to experience renal failure as another complication of GVHD and again he was referred to our clinic for plasmapheresis. We picked up where we left off during his weekly treatments. Again, his positive attitude and compliance with treatment were successful in saving his kidneys. This past summer I went to an outdoor concert. At the end of the night, when everyone was leaving, I saw Reed and his wife! I was so happy to see him looking healthy and strong. I introduced him to everyone who was with me, telling them that Reed was our miracle patient, the only patient that survived Grade IV GI GVHD. This fall, a card was delivered to my office. It was a birthday card from Reed to celebrate my 50th birthday! That is so typical of Reed, still thinking about others and wanting to do what he can to show how important others are to him!!
-Kimberly Sanford, MD is the Medical Director of Transfusion Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University Health.
I’ve always been fascinated with medicine and the human body, knowing that I wanted to make a career of it since childhood. I was taking an elective summer course in Histology when a close relative was diagnosed with breast cancer over a decade ago, and that’s when I recognized pathology/laboratory medicine was my specialty. My questions began when her sentinel lymph node had both a different morphological picture and immunohistochemical signature than the primary tumor, and I wanted to know why. Why did her initial core biopsy only show ductal carcinoma, yet post-lumpectomy, her sentinel node was diagnosed as metastatic lobular carcinoma? Where was the second primary tumor? I needed answers, my family needed answers, and that quest propelled me to apply to Jefferson’s Master of Science in Cytotechnology program, fueling my career in Cytotechnology.
A year after I started my career at Fox Chase Cancer Center, my relative received a call – her mammogram showed two abnormal areas. Eight years after her first lumpectomy and completion of a chemotherapy and radiation regimen… eight years in remission, we both knew what this meant. I drove her to the physician’s office, and her surgeon called me into the room after he procured the core biopsies of both lesions. I saw the white “worms” of tissue in the formalin containers and felt confident of a successful procedure. I looked up to see the image of the localization wires within the tumors and heard him say, “if this does come back as cancer, which I’m fairly certain it will, we can either proceed with another lumpectomy or mastectomy.” My relative was silent the entire ride home; she needed time to process. After the not-so-surprising path report came back as ductal carcinoma in both lesions, I called her from work and said, “you’re coming to Fox Chase for a second opinion. You’re having a double mastectomy. We are NOT messing around. Not everyone gets a second chance, and I’ve seen what this care team is capable of – they know your cancer better than anyone.” She calls me her “tough cookie” both out of affection and annoyance. Little did she know my tough cookie exterior was shielding a crumbling interior. After much hesitation due to her fear of the unknown, she scheduled her second opinion.
In the meantime, she had an MRI which demonstrated the two known lesions in the right breast, but also a large “enhancement” in the right breast. The MRI identified an area of enhancement in the left breast as well. And with those results, my relative felt comfortable withdrawing the lumpectomy plan from the table and played the card of double mastectomy with possible right-sided axillary lymph node dissection. A diagnosis of grade II invasive ductal carcinoma was made in the 1.5 cm right breast lesions, and the 6 cm right breast mass was diagnosed as invasive lobular carcinoma. The right axillary sentinel node demonstrated micrometastasis. On the left side, the pathology revealed a 3.5 cm grade II residual in-situ and invasive lobular carcinoma. She had a TRAM flap reconstruction at the time of her double mastectomy with radiation to the right breast after she recovered. She is tolerating and responding well to the daily dose of her aromatase inhibitor and now knows far too much about breast cancer and hormone receptor status thanks to my harping on the subject.
We both went through clinical genetics screenings, and despite our strong family history of breast cancer, no known germline mutations or variants of undetermined significance were detected in either of our peripheral blood samples. I’m already on board with the “increased lifetime risk of breast cancer” screening guidelines, and if so much as atypical ductal hyperplasia is diagnosed, I am more than willing to have a semi-prophylactic double mastectomy, just to reduce my overall risk of both carcinoma AND recurrence. My relative’s breast cancer experience set the precedence for my approach in the field of cytotechnology. From the beginning, I craved definitive answers for her, and I will do whatever I can as a cytotechnologist to provide definitive answers for all of my patients.
I still remember attending my first ultrasound-guided FNA (Fine Needle Aspiration) after my relative’s mastectomy. The patient was 42, a mother to a 3 year old and 6 year old, and presented with triple negative, grade III, poorly differentiated breast cancer and cervical, occipital, hilar, and mediastinal lymphadenopathy.
I assisted the radiologist in obtaining cellular material from the patient’s targeted right cervical lymph node, and when the radiologist prepared the core biopsy needle, the patient started to tear up, knowing well what the lymphadenopathy indicated. She told us she knows how aggressive her cancer is, how her young children are going to lose their mom, and I remember doing everything I could to hold it together and provide my adequacy statement to the radiologist. Like a child on the playground trying not to cry in front of her friends after skinning her knee, I gathered all my paperwork and the specimen containers, cleaned up my cytology cart, and walked back upstairs to our cytoprep lab. I assigned the specimen an accession number, handed the prep tech my cell block tube so she could spin down the residual material in formalin and ensure the cold ischemic time was less than one hour, and I bee-lined for a private space. I found our cytology file room, closed the door behind me, sank against the wall, and cried. I, too, knew the likelihood of her children losing their mom without medical intervention, and that the intent to cure would be the most difficult journey of this young woman’s life. This is why I’m here. This is why I fight for more material, why I fight for answers, and why I will always put the patient first.
Taryn Waraksa, MS, SCT(ASCP)CM, CT(IAC), has worked as a cytotechnologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, since earning her master’s degree from Thomas Jefferson University in 2014. She is an ASCP board-certified Specialist in Cytotechnology with an additional certification by the International Academy of Cytology (IAC). She is also a 2020 ASCP 40 Under Forty Honoree.
I have worked in hematology for many years, and there are certain things that never fail to excite technologists. Working in New Hampshire, it was always exciting to sickle cells or malaria, something common to some, but not common in our patient population. I now work in Baltimore, and see sickle cells nearly every day, and we come across malaria not too infrequently, but we still share good examples and save them for training. When we see something different or unusual, we always share the finding. Cells may need to be sent to the pathologists for a pathology review, and we always check back to see the pathologist’s identification and comments. Medical Technologists by nature are a curious bunch, and we always want to see ‘cool’ things. I wrote a blog two years ago about the only patient I have ever seen with Trypanosoma (Hematology Case Study: The Race to Save a 48 Year Old Man from a Rare Disease). Last month I wrote about Blue-green cytoplasmic inclusions (COVID-19 Patients with “Green Crystals of …” STOP! Please Don’t Call Them That). So, when I saw something else ‘cool’ and different on a peripheral smear, and then saw it AGAIN, on another patient, and saw other techs here in the US and in other countries were also mentioning these, because it’s my nature, I got curious.
When I write these blogs, I often feel a little bit like the mouse in the children’s story “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”, by Laura Joffe Numeroff. It’s about an adorable little mouse who asks for a cookie, and then decides he needs a glass of milk to go with it, and then he needs a straw, and it goes on and on, in a circle, back to the beginning. Maybe it’s that the mouse is a little ADD, but I like to believe that he’s just creative and curious. I start with an idea, and often go off on many tangents before a blog is finished and comes back to where I started.. When I started writing this, it was because I saw an interesting cell, and I started exploring, and found that others had seen them, too. Then I started looking through my textbooks for references and information, and searched for recent research or studies, and then I wanted to find out more… just like that mouse.
There are some things that we learn about in school and we may see on CAP surveys, but no matter where you work, they are still rarely seen, so are a novelty. Mott cells are one of these things. I have a collection of Hematology texts from grad school and years of teaching Hematology. Several of these don’t even mention Mott cells, but, when they do, it’s barely a sentence in a discussion of plasma cells. I happen to have a very old copy of Abbott Laboratories “The Morphology of Human Blood Cells” . The one with the red cover, from 1975. The term Mott cell does not appear in this manual, but they do show pictures and describe “Plasma cells with globular bodies (Grape, Berry or Morula cells)”, and describe these globules as “Russell bodies”.1 So some of us who have been working in the field for many years may remember Russell bodies and Morula cells, or Grape cells, even if the term Mott cell is not familiar. Regardless of what we or textbooks call them, they tend to trigger a memory because the images are so unique.
So, again, I’m a bit like that mouse and getting distracted with the background. Why am I writing this blog? In recent months I have seen cells identified as plasmacytoid lymphocytes and Mott cells in several hospitalized patients. I have heard reports of these cells in other facilities as well. So, like a good medical technologist, I got curious about Mott cells. What are they, and what is their significance? And why are we seeing more of these now?
Mott Cells are named after surgeon F.W. Mott. In the 1890’s, William Russell first observed these cells with grape like globular inclusions, but did not recognize what the inclusions were or their significance. Russell examined the cytoplasmic globular inclusions and assumed that these cells were fungi. Ten years later, Mott described cells he called morular cells. He recognized that these cells were plasma cells and the inclusions were indicative of chronic inflammation. Thus, today we refer to these cells as Mott cells, morular cells or grape cells, and the inclusions as Russell bodies.2
Hematology texts describe Mott cells as morphologic variations of plasma cells packed with globules called Russell bodies. We know that plasma cells produce immunoglobulin. When the plasma cells produce excessive amounts of immunoglobulin, and there is defective immunoglobulin secretion, it accumulates in the endoplasmic reticulum and golgi complex of the cells, forming Russell bodies. Russell bodies are eosinophilic, but in the staining process the globulin may dissolve and they therefore appear to be clear vacuoles in the cell under the microscope. Thus, a plasma cell with cytoplasm packed with these Ig inclusions is called a Mott cell.
Mott recognized that these atypical plasma cells were present in inflammation. Plasma cells are not typically seen on peripheral blood smears and constitute less than 4% of the cells in a normal bone marrow. Yet, on occasion, we can see plasma cells, including Mott cells, on peripheral blood smears in both malignant and non-malignant conditions. Mott cells are associated with stress conditions occurring in a number of conditions including chronic inflammation, autoimmune diseases, lymphomas, multiple myeloma, and Wiskott–Aldrich syndrome.3
So, why are we seeing an increased mention of Mott cells now? We seem to be seeing these on patients testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. I have seen cells on patients at my facility that resemble Mott cells. I belong to a Hematology Interest group and over the past few months I have seen several people post pictures of Mott cells, cells with Russell bodies, and plasmacytoid lymphocytes identified on peripheral blood smears of COVID-19 patients. Other techs chimed in with comments that they have also seen these cells recently. I have even seen a comment propose that these cells are indicative of COVID-19 infection.
SARS-CoV-2 definitely causes inflammatory processes and stress conditions in the body, so it makes sense that we may see these cells in COVID-19 positive patients.
Figure 1 shows a Mott cell on an image from Parkland Medical Center Laboratory, Derry, NH. A Mott cell was identified by pathologist in a male patient who tested negative for COVID-19 at the time the sample was drawn, and subsequently tested positive. Mariana Garza, a Medical Technologist working at Las Palmas Medical Center in El Paso, TX shared a case of a 59 year old diabetic male, diagnosed with COVID-19. The patient’s WBC was 31 x 103/μL. Two Mott cells were identified by pathologist on his differential. So, the curious little mouse in me researched some more.
Several published research papers have studied morphologic changes in peripheral blood cells in COVID-19 patients. As we now know, SARS-CoV-2 affects many organs including the hematopoietic and immune systems. A study in Germany showed that COVID-19 patients exhibited abnormalities in all cell lines; white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. Increased WBC counts were seen in 41% of samples in their study. Differentials performed on study patients showed lymphocytopenia in 83%, and monocytopenia in 88%. Red blood cell morphology changes were noted. Platelet counts ranged from thrombocytopenia to thrombocytosis, but giant platelets were noted across the board.4
Mott cells are indicative of chronic inflammation and may have significance in association with COVID-1. In the above mentioned study, aberrant lymphocytes were noted in 81% of patients who were SARS-CoV-2 positive, and observable in 86% of the same patients after they tested negative. The paper shows plasmacytoid lymphocytes and Mott cells amongst these aberrant lymphocytes. Moreover, morphologic changes in neutrophils, such as a left shift and pseudo‐Pelger‐Huët anomaly, decreased after virus elimination but changes in lymphocytes, indicators of chronic infection, remained.4
Another study also reported reactive or plasmacytoid lymphocytes and Mott cells observed in peripheral blood.4,5 Researchers at Northwick Park Hospital, UK, presented a case study of a 59 year old male with COVID-19 with a normal WBC and thrombocytosis. His differential revealed lymphocytopenia. His differential also showed lymphoplasmacytoid lymphocytes and Mott cells. In their conclusions it is stated that “In our experience, the lymphocyte features illustrated above are common in blood films of patients presenting to hospital with clinically significant Covid‐19. The observation of plasmacytoid lymphocytes supports a provisional clinical diagnosis of this condition.”5
Can these variant plasma cells, along with other commonly seen morphological changes, be used as part of a diagnostic algorithm for SARS-Cov-2 infection? As we see more COVID-19 patients there will be more, larger studies done and more Mott cells identified. Some disorders, such as Epstein Barr Virus and Dengue Fever are characterized by distinct viral changes in cells. However, since Mott cells can be seen in many conditions, these alone could not be considered diagnostic, but the indications are that these cells, along with the entire differential and morphological patterns, could prove to be a straightforward and easy to perform supplementary diagnostic tool. More, larger studies need to be done. It was concluded in the German study, that this pattern of morphologic changes in cells could be further investigated and validated with a larger blinded study, and that this information could lead to the development of a morphologic COVID‐19 scoring system.4 In the meantime, keep an eye out for Mott cells. These should not be ignored and should be in some way noted because they may be of future diagnostic use. That’s all or now, folks! Something to dig deeper into in another blog! The mouse strikes again!
Many thanks to Nikki O’Donnell, MLT, Parkland Medical Center, Derry, NH and Mariana Garza, MT, Las Palmas Medical Center in El Paso, TX for sharing their case studies and photos.
Becky Socha MS, MLS(ASCP)CMBB
Diggs, LAW, Sturm, D, Bell,A. The Morphology of Human Blood Cells, Third edition. Abbott Laboratories. 1975.
ManasaRavath CJ, Noopur Kulkarni, et al. Mott cells- at a glance. International Journal of Contemporary Mudeical Research 2017;4(1):43-44.
Luke, F, Orso, E, et al. Coronavirus disease 2019 induces multi‐lineage, morphologic changes in peripheral blood cells:eJHaem. 2020;1–8.
Foldes D, Hinton R, Arami S, Bain BJ. Plasmacytoid lymphocytes in SARS-CoV-2 infection (Covid-19). Am J Hematol. 2020;1–2. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajh.
Numeroff, Laura. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, 1985.
-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.
There is a fine line between obtaining enough cellular material for every ancillary study in the book and risking harm to the patient. So how do we ensure that the patient remains safe, but doesn’t need to come back for a second biopsy due to insufficient material?
Hi! I’m Taryn, a Specialist in Cytotechnology at Fox Chase Cancer Center and a medical laboratory professional who thrives on patient advocacy. Welcome to my first post for Lablogatory! Each month, I’d like to share a story of how the middleman/woman cytotechnologist becomes the biggest campaigner for the patient. Typically, I’ll be posting case studies of rare tumors and how we arrived at the diagnosis, but I’ll start with how to guarantee that we have ample material to provide a comprehensive result for both the patient and clinicians.
It’s a fight, to say the least. With personalized medicine at the forefront of our cancer center’s mission, we need ALL of the material for any and every ancillary test one can think of, from immunohistochemistry to flow cytometry to molecular diagnostics. That sounds like a lot because it is. From my experience, many clinicians feel that just because cytotechnologists can make a satisfactory adequacy statement on a Rapid On-Site Assessment (ROSE) of a Fine Needle Aspiration Biopsy (FNA), and the pathologists can make a definitive diagnosis based on cytomorphology alone, that means they have obtained sufficient material. For years, that was a valid thought. But now that we have taken various leaps from diagnostic to prognostic and now theranostic approaches, “enough” for cytomorphology is nowhere near “enough” for the patient’s clinical outlook.
As a cytotechnologist present on FNA’s, I have been called “greedy” and a “beggar” by clinicians on more than one occasion. No hard feelings, I promise. As long as the anatomical location of the biopsy does not pose more risk than reward, rest assured, I’m going for the gold medal. Starting out, I obtain one or two fine needle aspiration passes from the radiologist, pulmonologist, gastroenterologist, etc., and from each pass, I prepare one smear to be stained on-site via Diff-Quik (Modified Wright-Giemsa stain) and the mirror image smear fixed in 95% ethanol to be Papanicolaou stained later in the lab. The residual material in the needle is rinsed in Hank’s Balanced Salt Solution (A.K.A. Gatorade for cells) and later spun down into a pellet for a Formalin-Fixed Paraffin-Embedded (FFPE) Cell Block. I look at the Diff-Quik stained smears under the microscope and tell the clinician if the material I have is adequate, scant, or inadequate. This is where it gets interesting.
Clinician: “Adequate. So, we’re done? Okay.” Cytotechnologist: “The smears are adequate, but I need more material for the Cell Block. Can I have two more passes? And a core biopsy, as requested on the presentation state.” Clinician: “But you have enough. We already know the patient has lung cancer. You don’t need anymore. I’ll give you a core biopsy, but no more fine needles.” Cytotechnologist: “I need at least two more needles. The core biopsy material will be saved for molecular. The ordering physician wants to know if the patient’s EGFR-mutated tumor also carries a T790M mutation to see if they are eligible for this therapy. But I also need additional needle passes for the Cell Block to prove that the immunohistochemical profile is the same as the original material. If there is a small cell carcinoma component in the metastasis, that changes things.” Clinician: “Fine. Pathology is so greedy.”
Okay, so we have definitely progressed into a new era. Many newly trained clinicians understand the need for ample material, but this conversation still occurs on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong, the veteran clinicians (from my snippet) are remarkable. They can find a needle in a haystack, hit a moving target time and time again, and provide me with a perfect tumor-rich sample. But alas, in trying to educate and advocate, I admit- I do come off as a beggar. The key in our ROSE role is to not back down though. Cytotechnologists remain strong in their convictions, fighting for the patient, so that not only do we have enough cellular material for all of the necessary ancillary studies the first time around, but that hopefully the first time around is the ONLY time around.
We’ll chat soon!
Taryn Waraksa, MS, SCT(ASCP)CM, CT(IAC), has worked as a cytotechnologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, since earning her master’s degree from Thomas Jefferson University in 2014. She is an ASCP board-certified Specialist in Cytotechnology with an additional certification by the International Academy of Cytology (IAC). She is also a 2020 ASCP 40 Under Forty Honoree.
I left for vacation at the beginning of June thinking “once I get back, all of this COVID stuff will be quieted down.” …Well that wasn’t quite the case and testing for novel Coronavirus has continued to be very important. In fact, this last weekend I was tested by occupational health. It came back negative, but I’m am very enthusiastic to get alternative specimen types validated; those Nasopharyngeal swabs are quite…uncomfortable. Luckily, my test was processed at our institution which gets results back in 24-48 hours. However, with the resurgence around the country, turnaround times are backing up to 7-8 days. One solution has been the widely used IDNOW point of care platform. However, there has been significant concern over false negatives produced by this platform. One reason the sensitivity is different is because this platform performs isothermal amplification of nucleic acid. This method amplifies RNA at a stable temperature instead of cycling the temperature as in real-time PCR.
Colleagues at my institution reflexed any negative IDNOW samples to the m2000 Real-Time PCR assay for SARS-CoV-2 for one month. Within that time, over 500 samples were tested and the IDNOW was found to have missed 21% of positive cases (prevalence rate of 5%)2. One the positive side, it had a 98% negative predictive value, which helped rule out COVID19 infection. However, as prevalence rates are increasing, a high negative predictive value isn’t as important as sensitivity.
One study drew much attention when it claimed the IDNOW had a sensitivity of 52% in a New York City academic institution (Basu)4. However, this seems to be an outlier compared to other studies of this platform: one large multi-center study found positive percent agreement (equivalent of sensitivity when a gold standard test hasn’t been established) of 74%1. The highest PPA of 88%3 for the IDNOW was found in a study that indicated it can be completed in 17 minutes, whereas another quick instrument (but not point of care instrument: Xpert Xpress, 45min) had a PPA of 98%2.
Myself and other colleagues looked more closely at the clinical characteristics of false negative test results on the IDNOW. Overall, we found 82% PPA, and 8 patients with false negative tests. Interestingly, a majority of these patients were tested over 2 weeks after their initial onset of symptoms. The virus is known to be at its highest levels at the beginning of symptom onset. So the test may not be limited, but it should be used in the correct clinical context (< 2weeks from symptom onset). After that time, other RT-PCR based tests are more appropriate.
As clinical laboratorians, we often hear: “the right test for the right patient at the right time.” Now with so many platforms available for use in different contexts, we should help guide clinicians to Choose Wisely.
Harrington A et al. Comparison of Abbott ID Now and Abbott m2000 methods for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 from nasopharyngeal and nasal swabs from symptomatic patients. JCM 2020. PMID: PMID: 32327448
McDonald et al. Diagnostic Performance of a Rapid Point of Care Test for SARS-CoV-2 in an Urban ED Setting. Academ. Emerg. Med. 2020. PMID: 32492760
Zhen W et al. Clinical Evaluation of Three Sample-To-Answer Platforms for the Detection of SARS-CoV-2. JCM 2020. PMID: 32332061
Basu A et al. Performance of the rapid Nucleic Acid Amplification by Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 in nasopharyngeal swabs transported in viral media and dry nasal swabs, in a New York City academic institution. BioRxiv 2020.
-Jeff SoRelle, MD is a Chief Resident of Pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX. His clinical research interests include understanding how the lab intersects with transgender healthcare and improving genetic variant interpretation.
“Where do we go from here…chaos or community?” is the question Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked in 1967 before the civil rights riots in the hot summer of 1968. The query was directed to the nation as it sought to address the racism and pain deeply felt in the daily lives of its African-American citizens. Over 50 years later, that very same question is asked again as the nation is roiled with civil demonstrations, daily videos of racist behavior, and the seemingly senseless killings of African-American men and women.
As American culture and the nation evolves, uncomfortable conversations are beginning to occur in healthcare and across the country. Laboratory administrators and managers may want to reflect on the culture of their laboratory to ensure all voices are heard and that they are creating and supporting an inclusive work environment.
Diversity, inclusivity, and equity are goals healthcare organizations seek to incorporate into their culture to foster a healthy workplace environment and be reflective of the communities they serve. As with most industries, the laboratory has found itself challenged to improve cross-cultural intelligence and eliminate implicit and unconscious bias. The scientific community would like to believe it operates and makes decisions based solely on objectivity and facts. However, everyone is human and prone to perceptions influenced by preconceived beliefs and life experiences.
In the laboratory, questions involving race relations are pondered and discussed by workers of all creeds and colors. Historically, laboratorians have viewed themselves as scientists focused strictly on the pursuit of facts, hard data, and helping patients. However, one would err in thinking the lives of minority lab workers were encased in impenetrable bubbles of logic and reason. Instead, early on in their career (correction—their lives), many minority workers learned to compartmentalize and hide feelings of unfairness and helplessness in their effort to “fit in” and not make others feel uncomfortable.
Laboratory administrators should let employees know that their office is a “safe place” if an employee feels he or she needs to discuss issues affecting how they feel about their work environment. Many employees of color working in predominately white environments may avoid conversations involving race out of fear as being labeled as “one of those.” However, avoiding difficult conversations does not make the problems go away; in fact, the lack of addressing an issue often creates a more significant problem later on, or the employee simply quits. One thing managers should be prepared to hear if they are successful in creating a safe space and the employee chooses to talk, harsh truths.
Lab managers can be proactive and ask if the employee has encountered any barriers or obstacles to their success in the healthcare organization. Minority employees frequently experience microaggressions, favoritism, and racial discrimination. Discussing feelings may provide a release for the employee, allow the manager to begin to understand, and offer the opportunity for the manager to reflect on their behavior.
The diversity of today’s protest marchers provides evidence of the progress America has made toward vanquishing the problems of racism and discrimination. All colors, creeds, and ethnicities are together expressing their desire to defeat the scourge of racial injustice. Laboratories are a part of the social community, and minority employees are often reluctant to share anxiety and experiences they feel are race-based. Lab managers should be reflective and reach out to their employees to let them know their office is a “safe place” to discuss issues openly, including those with racial overtones. It is only through open and honest dialogue that we can avoid chaos and become the community we seek.
Darryl Elzie, PsyD, MHA, MT(ASCP), CQA(ASQ), has been an ASCP Medical Technologist for over 30 years and has been performing CAP inspections for 15+ years. Dr. Elzie provides laboratory quality oversight for four hospitals, one ambulatory care center, and supports laboratory quality initiatives throughout the Sentara Healthcare system.
A 24 year old male with a past medical history of recurrent streptococcal pharyngitis presents to the emergency department with a sore throat and dyspnea. His symptoms began three days prior and included left-sided upper neck and lower jaw pain and odynophagia. The patient’s evaluation demonstrated tachycardia, cervical lymphadenopathy, and a small left tonsillar abscess. Labs were significant for an elevated WBC count but blood cultures, Group A streptococcal and mononucleosis screens were negative. The patient was admitted for pain management and treated with a combination of IV ampicillin/sulbactam (amp/sulb) and steroids. He improved with treatment and was discharged the following day on oral amoxicillin/clavulanic acid (amox/clav). Nine days later, the patient re-presented with similar complaints. The tonsillar abscess had increased in size to 2cm. Labs were significant for leukocytosis and a now positive Group A streptococcal screen. 2mL of pus was aspirated from the lesion but no cultures were ordered. The patient’s status again improved, and he was discharged home again on oral amox/clav. The patient returned the following day and was placed on IV amp/sulb and admitted for imaging and symptom management. A neck CT with contrast revealed a now 3cm tonsillar abscess with reactive cervical lymphadenopathy (Image 1). A throat culture was collected; however, no beta-hemolytic streptococci were recovered after 48 hours of incubation. Incision and drainage of the abscess was performed at bedside, recovering an additional 10 mL of purulence that was sent to the microbiology laboratory for aerobic and anaerobic culture. The patient improved on IV amp/sulb and was switched to high dose amox/clav on day 15.
Gram stain of the aspirated purulence revealed many WBCs and a mixture of gram positive rods and cocci (Image 2). The aerobic culture grew a heavy amount of tiny, weakly beta-hemolytic colonies on blood agar. Smears of these colonies revealed Gram-positive coryneform rods. Biochemical testing determined the growth to be catalase-negative and MALDI-TOF MS definitively identified the organism as Arcanobacterium haemolyticum. The anaerobic culture grew oral flora.
A. haemolyticum is an infrequently isolated gram positive rod which is an etiologic agent of non-streptococcal pharyngitis diagnosed predominantly in adolescents or young adults. The diagnosis of A. haemolyticum can be challenging because itis often clinically indistinguishable from cases caused by beta-hemolytic streptococci. Most patients exhibit some degree of cervical lymphadenopathy, and a scarlatiniform rash can be present in up to 50% of cases. From a laboratory perspective, A. haemolyticum is slowly growing and weakly beta hemolytic after 24-48 hours on media containing sheep blood (including SBA and Strep Selective agars routinely used for screening throat cultures). The beta-hemolytic activity of A. haemoltyicum is attributed to expression of arcanolysin, a cholesterol-dependent cytolysin. Interestingly, arcanolysin more robustly binds to rabbit and human erythrocytes than those from sheep,1 which may explain the organism’s weak beta hemolysis on routine media. In this setting, the organism can be missed or dismissed as commensal flora without careful observation. Conversely, if beta-hemolysis is observed, the colony morphology and catalase non-reactivity can lead to misidentification as beta-hemolytic streptococci in the absence of a Gram stain or other determinative methods (i.e. MALDI-TOF MS).
The beta hemolysis of this patient’s A. haemolyticum isolate is difficult to appreciate in reflected (room) light, and was best observed after 48 hours using transduced light from a light box (Image 3). A. haemolyticum displays CAMP inhibition due to the production of phospholipase D which inhibits the hemolytic activity of beta-lysin produced by S. aureus (Image 4) and is reverse-CAMP positive when perpendicular to Group B streptococci which can aid in identification.2
Erythromycin is the drug of choice for treatment of A. haemolyticum, further highlighting the need for definitive identification of this organism in settings of pharyngitis. The use of penicillin for treatment of A. haemolyticum pharyngitis can result in treatment failure, possibly due to invasion of host cells, thus establishing a reservoir,3 or due to a penicillin-tolerant phenotype.4 It is unclear in this case if source control or decreased susceptibility necessitated the multiple courses of antibiotics utilized. Fortunately, the patient’s symptoms resolved on high dose amoxicillin/clavulanic acid following thorough incision and drainage. He subsequently returned for an outpatient tonsillectomy.
Jost BH, Lucas EA, Billington SJ, Ratner AJ, McGee DJ. 2011. Arcanolysin is a cholesterol-dependent cytolysin of the human pathogen Arcanobacterium haemolyticum. BMC Microbiology 11:239.
Kang H, Park G, Kim H, Chang K. 2016. Haemolytic differential identification of Arcanobacterium haemolyticum isolated from a patient with diabetic foot ulcers. JMM Case Reports.
Österlund A. 1995. Are Penicillin Treatment Failures in Arcanobacterium haemolyticum Pharyngotonsillitis Caused by Intracellularly Residing Bacteria? Scandinavian Journal of Infectious Diseases 27:131-134.
Nyman M, Danek G, Thore M. 1990. Penicillin Tolerance in Arcanobacterium haemolyticum. The Journal of Infectious Diseases 161:261-265.
-Andrew Clark, PhD, D(ABMM) is an Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern in the Department of Pathology and Associate Director of the Clements University Hospital microbiology laboratory. He completed a CPEP-accredited postdoctoral fellowship in Medical and Public Health Microbiology at National Institutes of Health, and is interested in antimicrobial susceptibility and anaerobe pathophysiology.
-Clare McCormick-Baw, MD, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Microbiology at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. She has a passion for teaching about laboratory medicine in general and the best uses of the microbiology lab in particular.
A 20 year old female with no significant past medical history presented with a painful pruritic rash on the bilateral inner thighs that had been persistent for one month. Prior to presentation, she had been treated with oral and topical antihistamines, topical steroids, valacyclovir, and partial courses of doxycycline and cephalexin without improvement. Physical examination was notable for diffuse erythema and dermal edema of the bilateral medial thighs with superimposed exophytic papules with dark, necrotic cores, the largest of which measured 1 cm in diameter (Image 1). Punch biopsy of the lesions was taken and sent for histology. A sample from necrotic tissue was sent to microbiology laboratory for gram stain and cultures.
Gram stain showed gram positive cocci in clusters. After 32 hours of incubation, tissue cultures grew white, β-hemolytic colonies which were catalase positive, coagulase negative, and pyrrolidonylarylamidase (PYR) positive. The organism was identified as Staphylococcus lugdunensis by MALDI-TOFmass spectrometry. Histology revealed eosinophilic inclusions consistent with molluscum bodies as well as inflammatory infiltrate (Image 2). Brown and Hopps stain on tissue showed Gram-positive cocci is small clusters (Image 3). A diagnosis of molluscum contagiosum superinfected with Staphylococcus lugdunensis was made based on laboratory and histologic findings.
S. lugdunensis is a coagulase-negative staphylococcus first isolated in 1988 that was initially thought to be a commensal skin organism but has been shown to cause skin and soft tissue infections (SSTIs), bacteremia, endocarditis, prosthetic joint infections, and osteomyelitis,2 with a virulence more similar to S. aureus than to that of other coagulase-negative staphylococci. SSTIs are one of the more common manifestations of S. lugdunensis infection; one analysis of 229 S. lugdunensis clinical isolates demonstrated that 55.4% were associated with SSTIs.3 The spectrum of S. lugdunensis-related SSTIs includes folliculitis, pustulosis, cellulitis, abscesses, and rarer secondary infection of molluscum contagiosum and hidradenitis suppurativa.5 Molluscum superinfection itself is a rare phenomenon, and when it occurs, the superinfecting agent is most often S. aureus.1 Our case suggests that S. lugdunensis should also be considered as a potential causative agent of molluscum superinfection. There is growing recognition that S. lugdunensis is a virulent pathogen that should not be disregarded as a contaminant if found on culture. Importantly, when compared with S. aureus, S. lugdunensis has a more limited resistance profile; methicillin resistance is still uncommon, and 74.6% of isolates in one recent study were penicillin susceptible.4 Awareness of this more favorable resistance profile can facilitate selection of narrower-spectrum antibiotic therapies for S. lugdunensis infections.
In our case, patient received one dose of vancomycin and metronidazole in the emergency department and was then started on cefazolin for cellulitis. After wound culture identified S. lugdunensis, the patient was discharged on cefadroxil 1g twice daily for 10 days. On follow up, the rash had resolved.
Berger EM, Orlow SJ, Patel RR, Schaffer JV. Experience With Molluscum Contagiosum and Associated Inflammatory Reactions in a Pediatric Dermatology Practice: The Bump That Rashes. Arch Dermatol. 2012;148(11):1257–1264. doi:10.1001/archdermatol.2012.2414
Douiri N, Hansmann Y, Lefebvre N, Riegel P, Martin M, Baldeyrou M, Christmann D, Prevost G, Argemi X. Staphylococcus lugdunensis: a virulent pathogen causing bone and joint infections. Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 2016;22(8):747-748. doi:10.1016/j.cmi.2016.05.031
Herchline TE, Ayers LW. Occurrence of Staphylococcus lugdunensis in consecutive clinical cultures and relationship of isolation to infection. J Clin Microbiol. 1991;29(3):419–421.
Taha L, Stegger M, Söderquist B. Staphylococcus lugdunensis: antimicrobial susceptibility and optimal treatment options. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2019;38(8):1449–1455. doi:10.1007/s10096-019-03571-6
Zaaroura H, Geffen Y, Bergman R, Avitan‐Hersh E. Clinical and microbiological properties of Staphylococcus lugdunensis skin infections. J Dermatol, 2018;45: 994-999. doi:10.1111/1346-8138.14496
-Ansa Mehreen, MD. 1st year AP/CP resident at University of Chicago hospital program based at Evanston Hospital. Her academic interests include gastrointestinal pathology.
-Erin McElvania, PhD, D(ABMM), is the Director of Clinical Microbiology NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois. Follow Dr. McElvania on twitter @E-McElvania.
In 2018, Hurricane Florence ripped through the Carolinas causing an immense amount of destruction and taking a record amount of lives in the area. Superstorm Sandy had a devastating impact on New York and New Jersey in October 2012. In Joplin, Missouri, an EF-5 tornado cut a damaging path through town in May 2011, directly hitting the hospital. Severe storms, flooding, and even blizzards are regular events throughout large areas of the United States every year, disrupting normal life and the delivery of services, including healthcare services.
Natural disasters occur frequently, and labs must consider them in their Emergency Response plans. These disasters have consequences for hospitals and laboratories and their operations. Given the wide variety of possible disasters that can affect a laboratory, it may seem impossible to be prepared for every type of event that could occur. Some labs take a reactive approach and create individual plans for different disaster types. For example, a lab manager may decide to create a blizzard response plan after a major winter storm—a plan that is separate from any previously existing lab emergency response plan. That may not work well, and it many plans may become cumbersome for lab staff when the event occurs.
As 2020 has shown us, other types of disasters that are not normally considered can also affect laboratory operations. The COVID-19 pandemic situation has created issues like the reduction of the availability of staff, a need to quickly alter testing platforms, and even major supply acquisition issues. Clearly, pandemic issues need to be considered when looking at lab disaster responses.
The best type of laboratory emergency response plan is a single plan that will enable the laboratory to continue to provide services in a variety of disaster scenarios, including pandemics. The College of American Pathologists (CAP) requires labs to develop an emergency plan which is based on the overall facility’s Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA). The HVA is a risk assessment tool that lists types of disasters that can affect the facility, and it ranks which disaster types are most likely. If you work in an independent lab, you must perform your own HVA and update it every year. In 2020, it would be prudent to quickly add “pandemic” to the list.
There is no need to panic, however. In your plan which has been designed to have an “all hazards” approach, you may find some aspects of pandemic response are already addressed. Fluctuating staffing levels should already be addressed. Be sure the plan discusses how to best utilize staff when fewer people are available. That process may include a reduction in testing or utilizing a reference lab if necessary. In some instances during the pandemic, labs were left with too many staff members once an overall reduction in lab volumes occurred. How can extra staff be used? Can they go to other departments or facilities where needs may exist? There should be a section in the response plan regarding how to handle supply issues. If it is known there is going to be a problem obtaining PPE, reagents, and other supplies, decide what procedures will occur. Stockpiling, finding alternative vendors, and changing the type of supplies purchased are some options.
Once all of the pieces of the updated lab emergency operations procedure is complete, it is important to test the plan for flaws or needed improvements. One thorough method of testing includes the use of a table-top drill or exercise. Present a step-wise disaster scenario to key lab stakeholders and discuss possible responses as the imagined situation unfolds. Be sure to discuss important aspects such as staffing, supplies, communications, and relocation of testing. If the COVID-19 pandemic has led your lab to utilize its emergency response plan, be sure to take the opportunity to review how it is working for your department. Ask lab leaders and staff members if the current plan works- what went well and what needs improvement? This current disaster can help us all to improve our current procedures and keep us ready for the next event.
Is your laboratory emergency operations plan up to date? Does your staff know how to use it or will they panic when a disaster occurs? Has the plan been tested? Now is the time to review what you have and make sure it works for pandemics as well as a wide variety of disaster scenarios.
–Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.
At this point, you are either somewhat adjusted to working from home (likely taking on new roles and responsibilities while juggling your kids, dog, and spouse), battling COVID on the front lines (caring for patients, providing us with food, or keeping the lights on), or unemployed (yet another victim among a whole host of victims during this extremely trying time). Regardless of where you fall, you have likely been on at least one video conference since January and you will likely be on many more over the next six months. As live, in person meetings of 2500 to 5000 people that we are so used to have come to a screeching halt, the world of associations such as ASCP are carefully and artfully creating virtual experiences that you can be assured will enhance and improve your life but will most definitely be in a virtual format. But the whole world is now experiencing online happy hours, teaching sessions, work meetings, telehealth visits, group therapy sessions, and kid’s birthday parties. Step back from your current situation and ask, “Have I seen MORE or LESS of my friends and peers in the last six months than in the prior year?” That answer is different for each person and carries different emotional baggage. For the constant extrovert who needs that human interaction fuel to spur them on, video conferences may not be hitting the mark. For the ever-quiet introvert who happily recharges among their books and cats and knitting, constantly being required to video chat with people for hours on end may be pushing them toward a steep cliff of insanity. For the “mover and shaker” that loves a problem a minute, thrives in crisis, and gets utter joy out of solving a problem and moving on, facing a day filled with 8 pre-scheduled video conferences or, worse, a day with an empty calendar can be demoralizing. For anyone who had a rhythm to their email usage which involved key time points to check during the day and an internal list of priorities of how to deal with emails on a rolling basis, the extreme uptick in volume of email because everyone is working remotely in the same office (“where is the water cooler chat?”) is dizzying.
It is now July 2020 and we face the uncertainly of what working from home will mean or be or even when it will end (or will we choose this as a permanent solution?). For those of us who have been and continue to report to our work place using social distancing, masks, shift rotations, and the inability to touch anything around us, how can we make this sustainable long-term, do we need to do so, and how do we know when we can end it? For the hundreds of millions of non-laboratorians who are asking, “When will there be a test so we can go back to work?”, the job of the laboratory has long been a mystery but is now suddenly thought to be a miraculous answer to a complex problem of politics, public health, and capitalism. Amidst all of the uncertainty of COVID-19 that we are facing on a continuous basis, the country was already immersed into a “fake news” war between rival political factions that already had the bulk of America either fed up with all new sources, only trusting one “news” source (the bulk of which was political agenda opinion), or simply burying heads in the sand in hopes that this was all just a bad dream. We are halfway through 2020 and the optimists are saying, “It can only get better” and the pessimists are sighing, “what comes next?”. The only people who aren’t complaining are the myriad of investors who didn’t even need a crystal ball to predict the March stock market crash, sold short, and raked in billions—which they then returned to the market buying blue chips at rock bottom (relative) prices to now be showing a 20% return. If only we could all be so lucky?
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel and the sun will come up tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever and this virus will run its course—whether we fight it tooth and nail or ignore it—to a natural conclusion which is harmony within our population. Over the next 6 months, enormous amounts of data on epidemiology, biology, virology, and treatment will emerge. We will learn from our colleagues in Africa what the impacts of early, sustained interventions can do to thwart the virus. Over the next year, vaccines will appear and be available for the population at large. The myriad of tests will have settled around a handful of reliable “winners” that have the sensitivity and specificity we need for each of the valued applications in our systems. The stock markets (and your retirement funds) will have recovered and exceeded pre-COVID-19 levels. However, one aspect of our lives will be permanently changed and that is our dependence and use of video conferencing for the special, the everyday, and the mundane. To that end, let me conclude with some of my (hard earned) lessons from both the last 6 months and the last 20 years of working in global health.
Video conferencing etiquette is a “thing”. Seriously. Tools available to the host can get you so far but nothing says, “we are all in this together” like a team on a video call that is following the rules. Mute yourself when you are not talking. Turn off your computer’s sounds or software that makes frequent sounds. Do not leave your cellphone on your desk on vibrate (computers have great microphones!). If your internet connection is bad, switch off your video. When you are listening, look directly into your webcam (then others feel you are looking directly at them and they feel more connected). Use a virtual background if possible so we do not see your kids making breakfast in the background. Brush your hair (you can totally get away with no pants and not showering but “bed head” is a dead giveaway). Sit within 3 feet of your computer. Rename yourself on the screen if possible, with your full name and organization. Do not take a video call while walking outside.
Your workstation is your productivity cockpit. Make sure it has what you need. In today’s world of multitasking and conferencing, two screens are almost a must. You can use a laptop while traveling but for a home office, having two screens creates a much cleaner canvas to spread out your work, keep resources at your fingertips, take notes while conferencing, etc. Treat your digital workspace like your physical desktop. Keep only what you need on the desktop. File your files in folders you understand and can follow. If your virtual desktop is covered in hundreds of files and icons, your brain is not mentally able to process or prioritize. Use a background picture that sends you to your happy place so that, when you need a break, all windows can be closed, and you can zip to your happy place immediately.
Develop a personal system for communications. Maybe you are a texter, a snapchatter, an emailer, a phone-call-aholic, an instant messenger fiend… Whatever you are comfortable with, the other dozen people you interact with are comfortable with something else. Your team lead may say, “We are using Teams!” or “We are using Basecamp!” or “We are using Sharepoint!” but, let’s face it, it may not fit your style or your work flow. The important thing is to develop a system for whatever communication type you feel most comfortable and work that system to be productive. I have seen the inboxes of people who have 85,000 unopened emails (both personally and professionally) to which I reply, “Delete them!”. If something in those emails was so important, the person will have found another way to contact you. You are never going to read them and, honestly, email just does not work for you. Pick another channel. Texting can work for many people but the organization of texts on a phone and the archiving eventually becomes a challenge such that screen captures or lots of copy/pastes must occur. Whatsapp is a good solution with its archiving function but can still present a permanence problem. Your chosen communication channel is important because it will dictate your productivity style. For example, one of my colleagues takes extensive notes on paper (extensive!) but sometimes takes extensive notes on a tablet. Their work stack (i.e., the collection of items they work through daily) is a combination of pieces of paper and digital notes, but it is disconnected from a communication system. The time required for note translation into understanding and then moving those thoughts to an email, for example, for me would be wasted time. But they remain one of the most productive people I know so this system works for them! Each person must decide what makes them most productive and what keeps them informed and connected; however, a good approach if you are feeling overwhelmed is to use a single system (digital) that moves with you. Microsoft Outlook, Gmail (and calendar), and iCloud all have cross functionality that allow seamless notetaking, email and calendar creation, and file connectivity. Outlooks category function for email can be a massive time saver for the adept user where a preliminary read through of email can allow for classification (for example, I use “Urgent”, “To do – Non-Urgent”, and “Waiting on Reply”) and then priority follow up. At the writing of this blog, I have less than 30 emails in my inbox, all are categorized, and all are calendared for completion.
Go outside and breath. The single most important thing that we can achieve as a society as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is an appreciation for life, freedom, and health and that is difficult to do if you stay in front of your computer for 12 hours a day. More than half a million people have died of COVID-19 and we could have been one of them. Unemployment spike from a flat 4% to more than 14% with many companies, restaurants, and small businesses never planning to reopen. The unfortunate tragedies that continue to befall our black brothers and sisters led to peaceful protests which were then corrupted by riot and ruin across many major cities. Even now, racial and ethnic disparities, especially our Navajo neighbors in the Southwest along with our black communities, cause disproportionately suffering from COVID-19. It is not a time to think, “I’ve been lucky!”. It is a time to say, “What can I do to help today?”And where the help is needed is outside, in your community. Yes, you should wear a mask if you can’t social distance. Be sure to wash your hands frequently. But get out there and be part of the change for the better!
-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.