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‘I feel empowered’: Pandemic sheds new light on critical role lab plays in patient care

Harold Pierce News

Think about a hospital. What are the first thoughts that come to mind?

It’s probably a nurse adjusting the medications on an IV pump, or a team of EMTs rushing a patient in on a gurney through a set of double doors to the Emergency Room. Maybe it’s somebody being wheeled through the hospital halls for a surgery, or down to the imaging department for an X-ray or CT scan.

The thoughts that likely do not come to mind are those of the laboratory that most hospitals house. They’re not glorified in medical dramas on TV shows, are typically out-of-the-way places kept under lock and key and are not frequented by nurses, doctors or anyone else most consider synonymous with patient care.

In hospitals, laboratories are an oft forgotten, but critical juncture for patient care. Most patients laying in their beds don’t make the connection between their care and the people working in the lab. But the reality is that anytime a doctor needs to confirm their diagnosis with data, they draw blood, urine, or some other bodily fluid and send it to the lab for a test. It’s a team of scientists who determine the results that inform that patient’s course of care.

“People get their blood drawn and they know they’ll have the results the next day, but they don’t really think about who draws the results,” said Clinical Laboratory Scientist Amie Moore.

If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s the light it has shed to the general public on how critical a role lab workers play in patient care. It’s something Amie says she hopes will spur a new generation of students to pursue a career in the science field, and just maybe become clinical laboratory scientists.

The lab at Adventist Health Simi Valley bustled on a recent weekday as Amie worked through a rack of tests she needed to perform. In the chemistry section of the lab, CLS’s like Amie perform a menagerie of different tests to provide quality results for doctors. In terms of volume, it’s usually one of the busiest stations in the lab.

“We don’t get the stress of interacting with family members or patients like nurses do, but we do have the stress of doctors wondering where their tests are. It’s a different kind of stress,” Amie said, adding that much of the work has to do with ensuring instruments in the lab are working properly and conducting quality control measures to ensure test results are accurate. If they’re not, it could skew results and have an impact on a patient’s care plans.

“I need to be able to trust the results,” Amie said.

Like every department of the hospital, the pandemic brought new changes and stresses to the lab, and it’s thrown a learning curve to those who are new to the lab. Every patient who comes through the door must be tested for COVID-19.

“The COVID surge actually kind of manned me up a bit,” said CLS Brian Talens, who had been working in the lab for just about a year when the pandemic began. “Every morning before work, I’d be nervous about the volume and the testing and hitting max capacity. I was afraid to go to work, but it hardened my spirit.”

The experience taught Brian to believe in himself as a CLS and that, when things got overwhelming, to ask for help, he said.

As for Chase Huang, who was a college intern at California State University, Channel Islands up until last month when he was hired full-time as a CLS, it was trial by fire. He had been working as an intern for just four months before the hospital received its first suspected COVID-19 patient.

“When COVID came around, things became very busy, and you learn during a very dire situation,” Huang said. “But I feel empowered now. We know that our results are what doctors need to make correct decisions and diagnosis to help those patients, and I know I have a critical step in this process. I feel really good about that.”