By Alan Sorensen
Laboratory professionals, key members of today's health care team, are being recognized all this week during National Medical Laboratory Week. They can be found working in a variety of settings, from hospitals and doctors' offices to research laboratories and community health fairs.
Laboratory professionals or laboratorians work in the field of medical technology, which recently underwent a name change and is now known as clinical lab science.
A laboratorian, also known as a clinical laboratory technologist, medical technologist, med tech, lab person or some other handle, works every day as an "unsung hero" to help make the community health.
Karen Myers, a longtime lab professional in the Havre area, took The Daily News on an abbreviated tour of the Rocky Boy Clinic's lab last week.
"We're spread out here," Myers said. "We actually have more room than most labs. We do everything in here from growing and interpreting a variety of bacteriological specimens, performing and interpreting chemistries, microscopic exams, urinalysis, blood typing, and cross matching blood. Those are some of the most common tests."
The Rocky Boy staff is comprised of many professionals who have lived and worked in the Havre area for years.
Carol Maetche, lab and X-ray supervisor, will celebrate her 10th anniversary at Rocky Boy in September.
Myers, who grew up south of Havre, worked in Havre for years and went to Rocky Boy when the Havre medical community reorganized a few years ago.
Bonnie Dixon wears several hats at Rocky Boy. After four years at the clinic, she now serves as a nurse and EMT and does X-ray and lab work.
Working in a rural Montana lab, the laboratorians also must know how to mend their equipment when it goes on the fritz.
Myers said company representatives visit the clinic often, but if analyzers breakdown between visits, the staff have to know how to get them back up and working, at least temporarily.
"In a small rural lab, we do a little of everything," Dixon said.
"The point we want to get across is that we don't just draw blood," Myers said. "When you think of a lab, what do you think of? In the lab, we are performing a variety of tasks."
The laboratorians' expertise is called upon once the blood and multitude of other specimens are received.
After samples go through the appropriate analyzers, the laboratorians double check the results with visual inspections of the samples through telescopes.
"We look at it and correlate it with what we have from the machine," Myers said. "To be sure that only the most accurate results are reported, an endless list of regulations must be followed. Instruments are closely monitored for accuracy with standards and calibrations, as well as routine maintenance."
A laboratory professional's background is extensive with years of chemistry, biology and health science training earning them a bachelors degree, Myers said. That degree must be followed by acceptance into an internship program at an accredited facility.
"This program is intense and hands-on, covering all areas of the clinical laboratory as well as the business side of the medical field," Myers said.
Upon graduation from the internship program, clinical laboratory scientists, formerly called medical technologists, must complete and successfully pass a certification exam. Upon certification, she said, they must become licensed in the state they are practicing with many states, such as Montana, requiring mandatory continuing education.
"This ensures that laboratory professionals are staying current with the rapidly changing medical field," Myers said. "Doctors rely on us a lot of times to ask us, What kind of test do I run for this or that?'"
"The doctors could not do diagnosis without their lab tech," Dixon said. "It would just be guess work. They have to have faith in the lab techs."
"It is very important for people to know what we do in the lab," Myers said.
Laboratorians are regularly checked by surveys for accuracy, surveys that are federally-regulated, Myers said. "And we have to pass those surveys several times a year."
Laboratorians are Rocky Boy are especially concerned with diabetes, because of the high incidence of the disease among tribal members.
Every Wednesday morning they host a diabetes clinic that includes testing and a breakfast for the patients at the Diabetes Center just across the road from the clinic.
Laboratorians at Rocky Boy also give talks and lessons at Rocky Boy High School and at Stone Child College.
"We do so many things," Myers said.