Joshua Barrett, Clinical Laboratory Scientist. He is working in our Flow Cytometry department, analyzing sample results and graphs.

How the medical lab gets personal with patients

The truth about life in the lab is that it doesn’t stay in the lab.

Up to 70 percent of critical decisions regarding a patient’s diagnosis, treatment, admission and discharge are the result of work performed by scientists and technicians in the laboratory, according to estimates in a frequently cited report. All of those blood, urine and tissue tests ordered by physicians wind up in the lab for analysis.

“On our end, even though we may never see the patient, we’re trying to find out what’s wrong with them,” said Shelby Sutherland, a laboratory supervisor at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. “Our results are going to give their doctor the indication of what’s going on.”

Then there are the times when a Mission Partner in the lab encounters a patient or their family in person. That’s when the faceless specimen becomes very real.

“I was at a friend’s house, and they had a family member who had been in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit),” said Heather Shaner, also a lab supervisor at OSF Saint Francis. “They were saying how grateful they were and how great the care team was. It almost made me want to cry, because I was part of that success story. I helped with that!”

A special connection

Vicky Hoagland, Clinical Laboratory Technician. She is working in our Hematology department, scanning peripheral blood for abnormal findings.

A common stereotype of the lab is that it’s a dark place where science nerds can hide behind their microscopes and avoid human contact.

But the main lab at OSF Saint Francis is a large, bright room where some 300 people work in shifts around the clock, interacting as they analyze thousands of patient specimens – blood, sweat, throat swabs and more – each day. There are 13 departments, each looking at different aspects of patients’ bodies to help diagnose and monitor diseases.

While it’s true some workers leave the lab only to grab a bite to eat or go home, many meet patients face to face.

“Depending on the test, our Mission Partners might be taking the sample from the patient,” Heather said. “Certain things, like a sweat test, take time. So you get to sit with the patient for an hour and get to know them. Our hematologists assist on bone-marrow procedures, the blood bank delivers blood to patient bedsides throughout the hospital …”

Even if they never personally meet a single patient, lab personnel connect with patients on a special level. When a specimen arrives in the lab for analysis, it’s as if the patient themself has shown up.

“In the hematology department, we’ll have a patient come through and we discover acute leukemia or something, and we feel for them,” Heather said. “We want to do everything we can to help them, get that diagnosis out and notify the physicians so treatment can get started right away.”

Lab work is rewarding

Jacquelyn Lynn, Clinical Laboratory Scientist. She is working in our Microbiology department, entering an anaerobic chamber for cultures.

It’s hard to describe a typical day in the lab because there are so many different positions, so many variables to consider, and no two patients are the same.

Some of the lab work is enhanced by technology that might be expensive up front, but results in more efficient treatment and shorter hospital stays that ultimately reduce cost.

Routine blood tests might take as little as two minutes, especially if the results are normal. Other tests, such as those in microbiology, require three days to grow cultures and bacteria.

One day might be spent processing and sending preliminary results to the providers. The next day you might be assigned to the microscope, scrutinizing every specimen flagged as potentially abnormal.

The rewards range from finding something you’ve never seen, to innovating more efficient methods, to nailing the cause of an elusive illness.

“Being the one to make those clinical findings that aren’t in your face, those are special,” Shelby said. “If you have a patient who’s been sick for months and the doctors don’t know what it is, but you’re the one who is finally able to pinpoint exactly what’s going on, that fills you with a certain kind of pride.”

Lab opportunities abound

The field of clinical laboratory science began in the early 1900s and is rapidly expanding. As technology advances, knowledge of diseases grows and understanding of the human body improves, lab contributions become ever more valuable.

Shelby decided to pursue a future in medical lab work when she attended a career fair while in high school. Heather got interested in the profession when it came time to choose her college major. Both love what they do.

Heather works in the blood bank and phlebotomy departments after previously working in hematology and flow cytometry. Shelby focuses on core analytics in microbiology and chemistry but gets involved with all departments.

“Each new patient is a challenge. It’s just amazing,” Heather said. “Knowing I have that impact gives me purpose and makes me want to fulfill our OSF Mission and Values day in and day out.”

Opportunities in the lab seem endless, and openings abound.

Learn more about medical lab opportunities and apply today.

Last Updated: November 13, 2019

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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