Saturday, February 02, 2019

I've been everywhere (MLS grads in the Klein era)

Updated: Feb. 2019 (Major re-write)

Folks, the article below by a University of Alberta graduate in Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) was written 22 years ago. I have her permission to include it in a blog. I think it's timely because it documents -using one example- what happened to Alberta's health professionals under Ralph Klein in the 1990s, now touted as a fiscal hero by UCP's Jason Kenney.

IMPORTANT: I alone am responsible for the blog. The MLS grad agreed I could use her article in a blog, whose content was unspecified.

Although somewhat political, I decided to include it in the 'Musings on Transfusion Medicine' blog series as it relates to one of several students who got work in New Zealand's Blood Service and to education for medical laboratory technologists/scientists.

The student in question was lucky in her decision to get a university degree in MLS because it gave her international mobility. So many  of Alberta's excellent medical laboratory technologists with diplomas did not have that option.

As someone who was asked by many with diplomas what their options were when jobs in Alberta all but disappeared under Klein, it was hard to tell them the reality. Many were experienced and talented but it mattered not. Unlike MLS grads, the USA wasn't possible because of NAFTA requiring a BSc in jobs the USA needed. To work as a technologist you also needed to be certified by ASCP or similar. In contrast, most MLS grads had opted to obtain ASCP certification upon graduating so had no USA barriers to employment for what they were educated and trained to do.

Getting MLS grads accredited to work in NZ and qualified for work visas was difficult. First, I sent the entire MLS curriculum to the NZ certification body to prove the program was equivalent to NZ's, which had adopted a university entry level and called graduates medical laboratory scientists or biomedical scientists. Getting MLS's program accredited was the easy part.

Second, the job had to be on a skill shortage list, plus candidates needed a job offer from a recognized employer, in this case the NZ Blood Service. Other criteria were age, health and character requirements. Much more was required, including booking plane flights before acceptance by the NZ Canadian embassy was guaranteed. I well recall the incredible bureaucratic nightmare the MLS students endured to go Down Under.

These MLS grads, my 'kids' as I call them,were brave pioneers, undertaking a grand adventure. Thanks to PC Premier Klein, dozens of other grads uprooted them selves from their homes and families and moved to the USA where they were treasured as fabulous health professionals.

For example, out of the blue I was contacted by a maker of blood bank software (Wyndgate, now part of Haemonetics) who explained they'd done a software demo for the NZBS and were so impressed by the Canadian MLS grads, they hoped other grads would be willing to travel to California to work for them. As it turned out two MLS grads did, including this graduate, a grad of the post-diploma BSc program.

1. Having experienced Klein's health care cuts in Alberta, which we still are recovering from, I'm no fan of politicians like UCP Kenny who bow down to the god of decreasing a deficit. Especially when they put that above the welfare of health professionals and diss them for being pampered public service workers.

2. Seeing the fossil fuel energy sector whine about lost jobs and decreased profits, after so many good years of mega-profits, makes me chuckle at the irony. Yes, I have empathy for those who have lost their jobs. In the good years many folks, regardless of education level, earned $100K+ in the oil patch, worked hard, long hours and lived the good life.

Medical lab technologists spent much effort, time and big-$ to get an education. Oil-patch dudes, who portray themselves as pull-themselves-up-by-the-bootstraps macho-men and now whine, are portrayed as victims of the governing Alberta NDP of all things by the opposition UCP, not victims of the glut of oil and falling prices.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s public sector workers like my young MLS grads just got on with making the best of a bad situation at great personal trauma and expense. Yet the conservative UCP refers to health care professionals and others in the public sector as pampered, spoiled elites. Really?

3. To me, the most important lesson is please get the most education you can. Because it not only opens your eyes and mind, it gives you the opportunity to be the best you can, to contribute the most you can, and to be prepared when disaster strikes. As it did in Alberta in the Klein years.


My name is Kathy Swainston. I graduated from the Medical Laboratory Technology program at NAIT in June of 1989. Over the next three years I worked in both a small hospital setting in Jasper and in a larger centre, the Red Deer Regional Hospital. It was while I was sharing the Student Supervisors position in Histology at RDRH that I decided that I needed to return to school. I had attended university for two years before going to NAIT and I felt that I needed to complete my university degree.

At first I explored the post-diploma degree that UBC offers, before I realized that [Med Lab Sci at] the University of Alberta could offer me the same option much closer to home. I had already made the decision to leave my job, even though the future of health care in Alberta was very much up in the air at the time. In September of 1992, I was once again enrolled in university. The next two years involved a lot of hard work, but it was worth it.

The first year was tough, but not as tough as for the four year university student. Because of my training at NAIT, I was given credit for the labs that accompanied most of the courses that I took that first year. That first year got me back up to speed in all of the five disciplines of laboratory work. It also introduced me to a first year biochemistry class, which I thoroughly enjoyed and an introductory statistics class, which I endured.

As part of the degree you are required to complete a 3-or-6 credit research project. I found the experience extremely valuable. I chose to do a 6 credit pro- ject titled 'Characterization of the gene(s) that allow avirulent phase Ill Bordetella pertussus to grow on nutrient agar.' I enjoyed my time in the laboratory working on my own and learning to troubleshoot the problems that arose. I was able to experience first hand what it would be like should I decide to pursue graduate studies.

We were also required to take a course called 'Communication and Analysis of Biomedical Information.' It was set up in two stages; one part involved the research and presentation of a medical case-study to my peers. This gave me the opportunity to present my findings as a lecture to classmates and instructors. It was a great way to practice speaking in front of a group of people, which is harder than it appears.

The second part of the course involved doing a literature review of a selected topic relevant to laboratory medicine and writing a review paper in a format suitable for publishing in a scientific journal. This entailed lots of time in the library looking through journals and using on-line services such as Medline to search for articles. l chose to review 'Extraction, Amplification, and Study of Mitochondrial DNA from Ancient Remains.'

In the second year you could take advanced courses in the disciplines you most enjoyed. Some courses gave an in-depth look at instrumentation and troubleshooting, very valuable in today's laboratory. We had the opportunity to examine the management side of things, which was an eye-opener. We were exposed to the latest techniques in genetic testing and other technologies, such as flow cytometry. All in all received a very well rounded education.

l graduated in the Spring of 1994 with a BSc in Medical Laboratory Science. In the end pursuing a post- diploma degree has given me more knowledge and confidence in my work. l am more confident in conveying my ideas and knowledge to others and am a better technologist because of my experience.

Having a BSc in Medical Laboratory Science has allowed me the opportunity to explore the job market in the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other Commonwealth countries. Because of the degree and the generous help of the staff in Medical Laboratory Science at the U of A, l am now living and working in New Zealand along with five other MLS graduates.

The instructors in Medical Laboratory Science not only teach, but provide valuable help when searching for a job post-graduate. l would like to take this opportunity to praise their effort and thank them all.

For technologists looking to further their education, l would definitely recommend the post-diploma degree at the University of Alberta.

l would like to thank Pat Letendre for her help in editing this article.

Kathy Swainston, RT, BSc (MLS) Hamilton, New Zealand
Published in the ASMLT Spectrum, Jan. 1997

Decided to use very old ditty by Canadian legend Hank Snow. What happens to health professionals when politicians value money above people. Tragedy is a career killer for those without international mobility. For those with mobility it's still traumatic.
As always comments are welcome. See those below.


  1. Anonymous11:21 AM

    What a great blog. If only Alberta voter eyes could be opened before our next elections. Reading Barbara Kingsolver's 'Unsheltered' speaks to expectations that may now be unrealistic and I appreciate this take on different paths open to those with the mobility that education offers.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous. Sadly, many Albertans' eyes are blinkered by a long history of thinking one way, as happens in a decades-long one-party state.

    Expectations of many today are unrealistic and education is the key, to me a broad EDUCATION with transferable skills because many jobs will become the flavour of the month/year only to disappear in a blink. Plus increased automation and artificial intelligence will kill jobs like never before.

    Thanks for 'chatting' on this important issue.

  3. Anonymous7:10 PM

    Regarding blinkered thinking, I believe fear of change is a big factor - surely if we don't look at it (i.e. the facts) it will go away.
    Rather, let's believe the old guard, and heap blame on this upstart newbie government - not take a realistic look.
    Bottom line, you are right about agility garnered via a broad education and transferable skills.

  4. Thanks, Anonymous. You've hit on a reality, namely fear of change by AB voters who've lived in one-party state for decades.Sad but true.

    So easy for political opponents on the right to slur new NDP govt. as anti-business socialists, though clearly those doing so don't have a clue what socialists are.

    Canada's political right, provincial or federal, are now focused on creating fear of 'The Other', whether immigrants, LGBTQ2, Muslims, anyone who's different.

    And Cons. have decided that educated folks who know things and promote scientific evidence are to be slurred as elites.

    Yes, for gawd sake, let more Albertans be educated for many reasons. Key one is in case those who put biz bottom line above human well being and fearmonger about The Other should ever gain power.

  5. Some politicians in Canada think being a laboratory worker is a "gravy train"?


    As an American, who is currently a MLT student, I think that it is quite the opposite. Even though it is a thankless, and not well known position in the healthcare field, I know that it is essential for doctors and patient care. If I remember correctly, doctors use laboratory results about 70% of the time to diagnose and treat patients. Also, I think those politicians who believe that it's a gravy train should try working in the microbiology department of a hospital for a day, or week. I doubt that many would enjoy testing stool specimens, or the smells of all the culture plates. I doubt that they would enjoy all the interesting (and smelly) urine specimens.

  6. Anonymous4:56 AM

    As a son of a teacher, I can sympathize with feeling like people don't appreciate what medical laboratory technologists do or are even aware of all that is involved. Some people in America, believe that being a teacher is a gravy train of a job, and don't realize that many educators actually work after the school day has ended.