Medical laboratory technologist Melissa Peet checks sample at the lab at Vernon Jubilee Hospital.

Medical laboratory technologist Melissa Peet checks sample at the lab at Vernon Jubilee Hospital.

Laboratory technologists are a key part of the health care team

April 22 to 28 is National Medical Laboratory Week, and laboratory technologist Melissa Peet gives readers a peek into her work.

When the doctor orders lab tests, people wait anxiously for the results. Most of them have no idea what happens in the time between.

The lab at Vernon Jubilee Hospital is a busy room where technologists and assistants work intently 24-hours a day at computers and equipment, keeping an eye on a larger screen for notice of any urgent work that has to be done.

For example, a medical laboratory assistant (MLA) could take a blood sample, or other sample, in the emergency department or elsewhere in the hospital and these would then be sent to the lab. The samples might be sent by the pneumatic tube system which brings them to the lab quickly. In the lab, the medical laboratory technologists (MLTs) and assistants use a variety of equipment to carry out the tests that have been ordered. Each sample has a bar code that contains the test and patient information.

MLTs analyze blood and other body fluid samples in microbiology, histology or core lab. Core lab technologists specialize in hematology, chemistry and transfusion medicine. They are responsible for the analysis of blood, urine, stool and spinal and joint fluids. Core lab technologists also assist pathologists with bone marrow aspirations.

“Each sample is marked with a bar code that tells which tests have to be done. We do many tests here but some are sent to other sites for tests,” said core medical laboratory technologist Melissa Peet.

The blood bank is a vital part of services. A supply of blood and blood products is kept refrigerated, or frozen, and ready for use. Analysis, which is initially done by computerized equipment, is used to help medical staff make decisions about transfusions.

In some cases, the technologists make a smear of the blood and examine it under a microscope. Visual examination can provide more information and if there is something unusual about the blood sample, the technologist will ask a pathologist, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing disease, to look at it.

“We can see things with the eye that the machines can’t,” said Peet.

One of the machines used in the chemistry department is the VITROS fusion, which checks cholesterol, blood sugar, blood alcohol levels and iron levels, as well as others. Urine samples are also checked by machine and by microscope if necessary. Also in the chemistry department, the Centaur analyzer checks for hormones, troponin levels to test for heart attacks and various drug and antibiotic levels in the blood. The different tests can detect things that the patient may not be aware of themselves, like having diabetes or a low iron level.

“We can also tell a lot that is not picked up by machines from looking at the urine, like crystals, what was ingested, white blood cells, and bacteria. We also do pregnancy tests on blood and urine samples and test urine samples for drugs like cocaine and marijuana,” said Peet.

“Eighty-five per cent of what doctors decide about patient treatment is based on the information we put into the computer from the tests. It all comes together so that all the results can be compared and a pathologist can look at them.”

The machines can give a lot of information but that is only as accurate as the people running them. The technologists keep a constant watch on the machines with control samples to make sure they are functioning properly, and keep the machines clean. There is also external quality control.

“The doctors need to be able to trust that the results are accurate,” said Peet.

Medical laboratory technologists have an undergraduate degree, usually in sciences, and additional training through a two-year program at an institute of technology.

“I first discovered medical laboratory technology through the Candy Striping program at Penticton Regional Hospital when I was in high school,” said Peet, who trained at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and has been a medical laboratory technologist for eight years.

“I became a medical technologist because I am a very curious individual. Putting together pieces of a patient’s lab results to help the doctor determine a diagnosis is very interesting. My work is never tedious. My sources of job satisfaction are from major things like running a unit of ONEG blood STAT to the trauma room to help save a patient’s life, or from not-so-minor things like reassuring and distracting an anxious patient while taking their blood by telling them how I am needle-phobic myself. Yes, really. Don’t come near me with anything sharp.

“Knowing that I am making a difference in something that has an impact on patient care is very important to me and everyone else who works in the lab.”