Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What is a Medical Technologist?

Hello gentle readers! (Stole that one from Stephen King, sorry Steve!) Today, I am going to write a little bit about what I do for a living. Every year, during the third full week of April, our country celebrates "Lab Week". Lab Week is a celebration of the Clinical Laboratory Science field and all of the professionals who work within a medical laboratory setting.

My profession started my sophomore year of college. During freshman orientation, I was asked what I wanted to do with my life. I answered, "Work in a lab." They said, "Be a Biology major." So I was. I took a bunch of Gen-Ed classes, basic science classes and even calculus. Then, when I was ill during my sophomore year, I was sitting in the student health center and saw a billboard about Medical Technology and Clinical Laboratory Science. A lightbulb went on above my head, and I thought THAT is what I want to do! As soon as I felt better, I walked over to the College of Health Sciences to change my major. It took me a total of five years (including two summers and a semester-long internship) to earn my degree. My official degree is a Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science with an emphasis in Medical Technology. My official title is "Medical Technologist", and I am certified by the American Society of Clinical Pathologists. This means that at work, I sign my name with "MT(ASCP)" at the end. 

So you might be thinking to yourself what the heck is a medical technologist? Well, worry not! I can explain! According to the Wikipedia page, a medical technologist (also referred to as a medical laboratory scientist, a clinical scientist, or clinical laboratory technologist) is a healthcare professional who performs chemical, hematological, immunologic, microscopic, and bacteriological diagnostic analyses on body fluids such as blood, urine, sputum, stool, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), peritoneal fluid, pericardial fluid, and synovial fluid, as well as other specimens. That's a lot of medical-ese, isn't it? Let me break it down for you.

The most common thing that I do at work is run tests on blood samples. But that one task has a spiderweb of other tasks connected to it. I am responsible to make sure every test on each machine has it's quality control within range. I am responsible for doing daily, weekly, monthly and preventative maintenance on a variety of machines. (I could have used an engineering degree because of this, I swear!) I am responsible for making sure there are enough reagents on-board for routine testing and have to run quality control whenever new reagents are put in use. I am responsible for drawing the blood samples I test. I am responsible for any pre-analytical, analytical, and post-analytical problems that may arise. I am responsible for making sure my results are accurate, logical and turned out in a timely manner. I am responsible for calling "critical results" to a doctor or nurse.

Above and beyond blood, I also run tests on urine, stool, sputum, spinal fluid, semen (yuck!! Worst part of my job!!), and any other kind of fluid that can be pulled out of a person's body, as well as any tissue that can be taken out of the body. As you can tell, my job is NOT glamorous, in fact, it can be downright GROSS. There are times when I've gagged my way through a test. There are times I see results that shock me, like a blood sugar of 1200 (normal is 80-100 fasting), or a blood pH of 6.8 (normal is 7.35-7.45).

So that's the technical side of my job. But there is much deeper, more personal aspect to my career. You see, behind every tube of blood, every cup of urine, every bottle of fluid, is a person. Every single thing that comes across my counter is connected to a living, breathing (well, usually) human being. It's that human connection that gives my job meaning, value, and worth. 

I've sat and prayed with a family whose parent went in for surgery and never woke up.

I've ran a blood test on a child who presented with a simple fever and the results showed leukemia. 

I've been on a trauma team for a man who tried to take his life and saw on CAT Scan the path the bullet took through his brain, bouncing once off each temple before exiting.

I've been in the room of an emergency "Triple A" surgery and saw the geyser of blood that came out of the person's stomach when they were cut into. (A Triple-A is an abdominal aortic aneurysm.)

I've sat on the ground, clipping a patient's toenails for metal testing, because they weren't able to do it themselves. 

I've had to hold a patient's penis into the urinal for him so he wouldn't dump his urinal all over himself in the process of peeing. 

I've had to kneel down on the floor during a trauma because I was about to pass out because of the screams coming from the person with a compound femur fracture. 

I've tried to find blood for a person needing heart surgery who had such a rare antibody that there was no blood in the entire world that was compatible for them. 

I've cried over losing a patient. More than once. When you see the same faces over and over, you form a bond with people. (Well, I do anyway.)

I've drawn blood from a deceased patient who was having their eyes harvested for transplant. (It's hard to draw blood when someone doesn't have a blood pressure!)

I've watched a pathologist collect samples for genetic testing on a full-term baby who was stillborn and perfect looking.

I've had a needle-stick and had the patient apologize to me profusely because they had Hepatitis C and were terrified of giving it to me by accident.

I've been bled, spit, sneezed and coughed on, cussed out, barfed near (I always manage to jump out of the way, to avoid being barfed on), scratched, slapped, and shoved. I've been called a vampire more times than I can remember. I've been called every name in the book, some of which I'd never heard before.

I've drawn blood from thousands of people, some dozens of times, and I always appreciate it when they tell me that I did a good job. Having their blood drawn is something people are terrified of. I can't even enumerate the people who have told me "I hate this. I hate needles." I've drawn blood on every age person from minutes old (THAT is stressful!!) to over 100 years old. Unfortunately, the most a person ever sees me, a medical technologist, is when I'm drawing their blood. 

At the end of the day, I don't think most people could do my job. Not that it's hard, because it's not, not really. But the sheer amount of blood and body fluids I see on a daily basis would cause most people to run. Not only that, we are the "pee-ons" of the hospital. Granted, doctors can't treat patients without lab results, but the chain of command goes doctor-nurse-tech, and you know what they say about poop running downhill.

So the next time you have your blood taken, give a thought to the person testing your sample. We are the invisible army, completely dedicated to you and your test results. We don't have a job without you and because of that, during Lab Week 2013, I say this:

THANK YOU for being a patient and trusting me with your life.

I promise to not let you down.