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Touring Clallam County’s bloodline
From anger to panic, human nature kicks in when a patient faces an unknown medical diagnosis.
Everyone wants answers fast and typically there’s no time for the in-between.
Those who deal strictly with the nitty-gritty details of those answers recently led a tour of the Olympic Medical Laboratory in Olympic Memorial Hospital. Along for the experience was KatieRose Needham, of Sequim, who was diagnosed Oct. 5, 2010, with severe aplastic anemia, a rare condition in which bone marrow does not create enough blood cells. Needham said her treatment went well and that she’s back doing a lot of things she loves to do.
Some lab staff, including Laverne Fryxell, a medical technologist, remember the night they helped diagnose Needham.
“Her case was clear cut,” Fryxell said.
But diagnosing isn’t really what lab staff does, said Steve Blackham, lab director.
“We provide information to the physicians to diagnose, but without that information they couldn’t diagnose,” Blackham said.
In the Port Angeles lab, 70 staff members ranging from medical technologists to medical technicians to phlebotomists to hematologists work around the clock toward solutions for patients.
Needham said when she found out she had anemia, she assumed her doctor discovered it.
Her mindset isn’t uncommon, Fryxell said.
“We’re behind the scenes,” she said,” People don’t know about us for the most part.”
In the local medical field, however, the laboratory is well known.
Blackham said Olympic Medical Center has the whole marketplace in Clallam County — from doctors’ offices through nursing homes — choosing its lab for testing. When he came to Port Angeles in 1999, OMC had 18 percent of those businesses, with doctors choosing to send samples to the Seattle area.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to provide services like large market hospitals, equal to or better than the large commercial labs,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of work to gain the trust of physicians … The reason there’s so much competition for commercial lab work is because it’s easy for someone to draw blood and send it somewhere else.”
The lab can run hundreds of tests on all body fluids. Celeste Babcock, medical technologist and evening supervisor, said with the exception of the blood bank, everything is very automated.
“We must spend time on computers checking the results to see when something isn’t right,” Babcock said.
Olympic Medical Laboratory has five areas: the blood bank, chemistry, hematology, microbiology and pathology.
Blackham said the blood bank’s basic responsibility is ensuring that donated blood and platelets are compatible with patients’ blood types for transfusions.
Chemistry is the largest department, producing 75 percent of all reportable lab results. Large machines measure the different chemical components of the blood.
Hematology helped diagnose Needham’s anemia. That department measures the cellular components, such as the number of red blood cells, white cells and platelets.
Needham was given a chance to look through a microscope at a slide and see a patient’s blood.
“If I saw my blood from that day, it’d be like one or two little things,” she said. “It was super interesting.”
Microbiology takes body fluids such as stool samples, blood and spinal fluid to determine if pathogenic organisms are growing inside a patient, Blackham said.
Pathologists are the only doctors in the lab. They analyze tissue samples related to diseases such as cancer.
When diagnosed with anemia, Needham said she had some transfusions and her blood drawn several times. Through it all, her interest grew in pursuing a career in blood work.
During the lab tour, Needham caught up with one of her phlebotomists, Janice Hennessey, who’s been drawing blood for 12 years through the lab. She trained at the hospital before, then through Peninsula College courses.
Hennessey said it’s her preference to work in person with patients.
“I’d rather be hands-on and not have all the paperwork,” she said.
She draws samples from all over the hospital but spends about 70 percent of her time in the emergency room. Most of her tools are in a tote.
“This is what a vampire looks like … carrying a tray,” she said.
Consensus among staff in the lab tour was that medical technicians and technologists are in high demand.
“We want to bring more people to the field,” Babcock said. “We need fresh blood. Whenever we have a vacancy, we have to advertise nationally because of the need.”
Fryxell said many technologists are baby boomers and are retiring soon, which could be a problem because not as many people are going into the field.
Blackham attributes the need to a shortage of programs. He said in the 1970s there were 990 training programs but now only 270 exist.
“It’s a reflection upon Medicare (because it) is no longer subsidizing anything,” he said. “With the government subsidizing training programs, a lot opened up.”
The nearest programs are the University of Washington’s medical technologist program, a 4-year degree, and Shoreline Community College’s medical technician 2-year degree program.
Adam Thompson pursued becoming a medical technologist after finding his bachelor’s degree in biology couldn’t find him work.
He later went to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore., for 16 months, with one year of training and four months in a hospital.
“I had never been employable before (I became a medical technologist),” he said.
Blackham said he finds his medical technicians every bit as bright as his medical technologists.
“They perform exactly the same function except we promote technologists because they have better inductive reasoning through their schooling,” he said.
After the tour, Needham said she learned a lot, such as what platelets look like and about different career options.
“It was interesting to see the pit stops for my blood,” Needham said.
Olympic Medical Laboratory, 939 Caroline St., Port Angeles, is located inside Olympic Memorial Hospital.
Reach Matthew Nash at email@example.com.