A Pathologists’ Assistant Abroad

Jennison Hartong, MLS(ASCP)CM, PA(ASCP)CM, is a Pathologists’ Assistant who recently went to Ethiopia to teach grossing techniques. The editors of Lablogatory asked her a few questions about her experiences.

Lablogatory: How’d you get involved with ASCP’s Center for Global Health?

Jennison: Dr. Milner, Chief Medical Officer of ASCP, initially reached out to one of the pathologists at M.D. Anderson to inquire if any Pathologists’ Assistants (PAs) would be interested in attending a workshop in Nigeria. I reached out and expressed my interest in teaching grossing techniques rather than public speaking (not one of my strengths). Dr. Milner then told me about this opportunity in Ethiopia where pathologists were requesting advanced, gross training in lymph node dissections on breast and colon specimens. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to help in this way.

L: What were your motivations for going?

J: Whether with basic health needs or more complex areas like cancer treatments, I’ve always wanted to use my education and experience to help others and impact lives in areas around the world where certain aspects of healthcare may not be accessible. Before becoming a PA, I was a medical technologist and was always interested in working with Doctors Without Borders, however, I did not have the years of experience to apply. I decided to go to PA school and was disappointed to learn that Doctors Without Borders does not utilize PAs. I figured that dream would have to be accomplished another way, which was why I was so eager to work with the ASCP and their global health initiatives.

Another motivation for going on this trip was experiencing the work and organizational skills required for making a trip like this successful. I am currently finishing my second master’s degree in public health with a focus in health policy and management. I was very interested in learning everything I could about planning programs to help developing countries as well as being able to network with like-minded health professionals.

L: What did you hope to accomplish while you were there?

J: My main goal of this trip was to help advance Ethiopian residents and pathologists in certain grossing techniques. More specifically, I aimed to assist with lymph node dissections and, as it turned out, how to locate and sample the radial margin in colon cancer cases.  I also wanted to experience a different culture than my own, step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself as a PA by teaching others. At the end of this experience, I can say that this trip was definitely a life changing experience and one I am extremely grateful for.

Image 1. Jennison (black scrubs) training residents from St. Paul Hospital to locate radial margins on colorectal cancer cases.

L: What did you learn about lab medicine in Ethiopia?

J: During my week in Addis Ababa, I quickly realized that it was up to me to make this trip as successful as possible. Never before in my professional career were all the decisions up to me, and at first, it was slightly uncomfortable. I was worried I would come across as too bossy or even condescending. However, after meeting Eshetu Lemma, the ASCP local representative, along with the other participants and experiencing their kindness and eagerness to learn, I was newly determined to make this trip an absolutely positive experience for everyone. I made some changes to the training sessions and after the first day, the rest of the week ran smoothly. I learned a lot about how lab medicine is practiced in Ethiopia. I learned that, in the case of a power outage, you carefully set your blade down and wait it out. I learned that resources like aprons and sleeves are not thrown away unless completely used up. I learned that due to cassette shortages, tissue submission is done quite thoughtfully- more so than in the United States. I learned that the overwhelming majority of cancer cases are presented at stage 4 due to issues surrounding resources, fear, myths, and lack of cancer education. But most importantly, I learned that the labs in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, are doing an amazing job with the resources they are given and are eager for opportunities to positively impact patient care.

L: Is what you learned there applicable to your work in the States?

J: I’ll take what I learned there and incorporate it into my work here in the States. I’ve gained confidence in my ability as a health professional and reignited my passion to help others.

To put it simply, this trip has been life changing. It has allowed me to experience and accomplish a lifelong dream for which I am forever grateful. I’m hopeful that my future holds more opportunities to serve other communities and help strengthen cancer programs in developing countries.

Image 2. View from St. Paul Hospital.

-Jennison Hartong, MLS(ASCP)CM, PA(ASCP)CM is a board certified Pathologists’ Assistant, specializing in surgical and gross pathology working mainly in oncology cases. Before attending graduate school, she worked as a Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS) at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Illinois. Upon graduating, Jennison started working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In 2018, she relocated to Houston and currently works at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. In May of 2019, Jennison will graduate with a second Master’s in public health with a focus in health policy and management from New York Medical College. She plans to use her extensive lab experience and newfound knowledge of public health to help bring basic healthcare to communities that would otherwise not have access to these necessities.