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Air Force medical laboratories - a culture all their own

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Travis Edwards
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

With 8,000 tests performed each month, to say this 10-person team of Airmen are a little busy might be an understatement. 

More notably known as being the evil Airmen who stick needles into the arms of service members and their families; medical laboratory technicians are here to help and their job isn't quite finished after the blood draw.

"We have a lot of different machines that do a myriad of jobs for us," said Staff Sgt. Gaetan President, 51st Medical Support Squadron lab tech and NCO in charge of hematology. "Much of what we do comes down to having attention to detail. We rely greatly on our systems; they do the heavy lifting. We have to make sure they are calibrated correctly."

The machines, or analyzers, can take anywhere from two to 30 minutes to process, depending on what tests are performed.

The analyzers tests for countless things in a patient's blood to include: HIV, drugs, and pregnancy, cholesterol levels and even if someone recently had a heart attack.

Still, the machines only work as well as they are maintained.

"We can be like little mechanics," said Staff Sgt. Charita Murray, 51st MDSS lab tech and NCO in charge of the blood bank. "A lot of troubleshooting goes into maintaining our equipment and it takes knowing the machine to be able to identify abnormalities in the results."

"Mistakes can cost lives, which means we always have to be on our game," President added. "So if a machine reports information that is suspect or shows potentially dangerous information, we do a manual check as well (to verify the results)."

But it's not just blood they take samples of; the lab here tests every type of bodily fluid.  Some of the samples are tested by using a microscope that zooms in to 100-times normal vision.

Zooming in"We work with all the bodily fluids -- you have to have a strong stomach," said Murray, a native of Las Vegas.

Once a lab tech receives an order and obtains a sample, they process the sample and enter results into the medical system so providers can give patients proper care and treatment.

However, not every test is as cut and dry as looking for a bacterial infection. The team must have good attention to detail, if they have to double check their work to ensure nothing is missed, they will, Murray added.

Additionally, some blood samples are placed on small, round dishes in a heated, controlled environment. The heat (which is sometimes infused with extra carbon dioxide) allows bacteria to grow more quickly, which speeds up the time it takes lab techs to determine the bacterial strain. The process can lead to a faster diagnosis and thusly a faster treatment, which gets Airmen back into the fight sooner.

"We can usually tell what kind of bacteria we're dealing with when we look at the culture plate," said President, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands. "Each strain of bacteria has a distinct look and behavior. We identify the strain so the doctor can prescribe the right type and amount of medication for a patient."

However, when Murray isn't looking for microscopic bad guys floating through your body, she's making sure there is enough whole blood on hand for emergencies and checking blood types.

Lab techs use red blood cells and serum for typing. Blood tubes are spun around in a machine that separates red blood cells from serum. The blood byproducts are then placed into a reagent solution (a mixture used for analysis) and checked for a specific reaction.

"If we do not have a history (record) of the patient having their blood type checked before, we will have another technician confirm the results by repeating the test," said Murray. "There's no room for error. Serious and potentially fatal consequences can occur."

Blood TypingSince so many tests require a patient's blood, there is only one position for proper acquisition - sitting in a chair with your arm held out ready for the lab tech to pierce the vein.

"My job is to make as pleasant as possible," said Murray. "Patient care is a huge priority for us (lab techs), so it helps when patients communicate with us about what is unique about them during blood draws.

"If you are a fainter, are scared of needles or only have one dependable vein, let us know. It all helps us serve you better," she said.

Murray explained how during her technical training school, students had to practice drawing blood from each other.

"It's all about that human factor," she said. "We can relate to a bad stick, so we want to be as careful and thorough as possible to ensure we do it right the first time, every time. We want the patients to know that we care.

But not every blood draw is a big, easy vein. Murray explained that sometimes the most complicated draws are the ones they don't expect.

"I remember when we had a guy who was processing through a deployment line and had to get his blood drawn," said Murray. "He was afraid of needles and it took three [lab techs] to make the draw. It was intense."

Murray, who has been in the Air Force just shy of 10 years, explained that it was the experiences, supervisors and mentors at each of her assignments who helped her learn the plethora of knowledge she has today.

"We have a very important job to do," she said. "Our communication, internal and external, is vital for us to produce at the level we do for the hospital. It takes a team to do it right and we have a great team here; we are a family."

Whether tinkering on analyzers to get accurate results or ensuring the temperature is just right for samples, reagents and reserve blood units, the family of lab technicians at Osan is here to take care of you. They're the heart of the hospital, pumping blood (and culture) throughout the veins and arteries that connect the clinic.