Saturday, July 22, 2017

Both sides now (Musings on where careers take us)

Updated: 2 August 2017

July's blog originated when, after decades of hoarding 'stuff', I finally decided to clean out a file cabinet. In the Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) folder, where I'd taught for 22 years+, I came across a graduation talk I'd given in 1991. The talk got me thinking about preserving (via a blog) some of the history of med lab techs who got caught in the cost constraints of the 1990s and had to work outside Canada. Some eventually decided to transition to other careers. 

The idea for the blog further crystallized when a local radio station used as its 'talking point of the day' 
  • 'How did your education (or lack thereof) play into your career? Are you doing the job you trained for and can people still learn on the job?'
I thought the question's focus was slightly off because it assumed that education for a career was mainly for a particular profession's job-specific tasks and ignored all the transferable skills students learn with a good professional education.

Executive version: What follows is an edited version of the grad talk followed by my musings on what happened to the careers of some graduates in the 1991 class. My thesis is that, if education for a career is sound, graduates come out with the self-confidence and transferable skills to transition to wherever life takes them.

Why read it? The educational issues discussed relate to med lab techs/biomedical scientists everywhere and cover a few of the transferable skills essential to any health professional. As well, the blog may resonate with nurses and physicians who find themselves forced to travel to foreign lands for job opportunities. 

Today where I reside (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), depending on which provincial political party wins the election in 2019, health professionals could find themselves back in the 1990s when medical laboratory technologist, nursing, and laboratory physician jobs all but dried dried up due to the government's obsession with balanced budgets. 

The blog's title derives from an iconic 1967 song written by Canada's Joni Mitchell. I used it once before for a 2013 blog.

What follows is an edited version of the talk. It's a run-of-the-mill talk but makes a few points I think are key to a sound education and still apply 26 years later.
Thanks very much Terry for your generous introduction. I am glad to have this opportunity because there are a few things I still need to cover with this class. First, I thought we would have a spot quiz, because students love them. Be aware that some of the answers will only make sense to the graduates. Let’s begin, starting with a test of your long-term memory.
Q #1: How many 1st-year MLS students does it take to change a light bulb?
  • Five. One to change it and four to set up Kohler illumination.
Q #2: How many 2nd-year students does it take to change a light bulb?
  • None. At least not in my class. You see, they were all asleep during my Powerpoint presentations and the light would only have disturbed them.
Q #3: How many 3rd-year students does it take to change a light bulb? [3rd yr is the clinical rotation yr]
  • The whole class. One student to change it and the rest to complain that their friends in other faculties had all summer off to do it.
Q #4: This one is a test of your short term memory. How many 4th-year students does it take to change a light bulb?
  • Again, the whole class. One to change it and the rest to complain that it should be deleted from Path 401 [a catch-all course, long since dropped].
Q #5: How many MLS instructors does it take to change a light bulb?
  • Ten. One to change it and nine to evaluate whether it was done right.
Now that the spot quiz is over there are a few things that I would like to talk to you about in a more serious vein. 
A few weeks ago I went to the Ambassador Awards at the Convention Centre. It was attended by people from all walks of life who belonged to associations like the CSLT [now CSMLS] that can bring conventions to the city. The organizers gave out awards and asked all of us to act as ambassadors by promoting Edmonton as a convention site. 
The thought occurred to me that in one way or another we all act as ambassadors. For example, when we are tourists in a foreign country, or when we interact with visitors to our city. 
So I would like to talk tonight about the idea that all of you—the MLS graduates of 1991—are going to be ambassadors for MLS whether you realize it or not. No matter what the future holds for each of you, all of the people you will meet will be gaining impressions of MLS through you, your actions, and attitudes. 
Now before you say, “Good grief! I can’t handle the pressure—-MLSers for life”—I want to tell you that I have great faith in each and every one of you. As an MLS instructor I have been privileged to share a part of your life for the past few years. 
Let me explain why I think that you will be great ambassadors. In a way, I feel like the mosquito in a nudist colony. I don't know where to begin.  
First, there are all of the things you have learned while in MLS. And I’m not talking about the knowledge and technical skills you have assimilated, although these are important. You have learned so much that what you have forgotten would fill a library.No—I’m talking about transferable skills that you will find useful all your lives. 
For example, you have learned how to be good listeners. Goodness knows you have had enough practice being listeners during your time here. As you begin your careers, remember the words of a wise person who once said, “good listeners are not only popular everywhere, but after a while they know something.” I have learned much from listening to you over the years.
You have also learned how to communicate clearly, both orally and in writing. Who can ever forget their first teaching assignment? I should explain that our students give at least three oral presentations to classmates and instructors beginning with teaching assignments during 3rd year. 
I’m sure that some of you think that teaching assignments were cruel and unusual punishment—both for the student and the audience. But, boy, do they ever pay off. The progress you made was really shown when you presented your 4th-year research projects. Your instructors and supervisors were impressed. 
This ability for you to make presentations will be a real plus for you in any career. I tell you this because I have listened to many technologists, scientists, and doctors who have not had the advantage that teaching assignments provide—namely to express ideas clearly and concisely. And listening was brutal.
There are many other intellectual skills you have learned. For example:
  • Your grasp of the scientific method and all that entails; 
  • The ability to be skeptical about so-called established knowledge, and yet to be open-minded about complex issues;
  • You know that it is okay to say, “Gee, I  don’t know, but I will find out”;
  • Most important of all, you know how to learn
You will draw on these skills over and over again— especially because medical laboratory science is evolving so rapidly. 
I would like to shift for awhile to some of the ways you have all grown in your personal development. 
Those of you who entered MLS lacking self-confidence have seen your belief in your abilities increase. Self-confidence is essential because no one will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. I’m not talking about being over-confident and self-important, but rather about the quiet self-assurance of people who are competent and know it. 
Conversely, if you came with a fair degree of self-confidence—if you were like me at 18 (and trust me, I was 18 once—and thought I pretty much knew everything) —then your experiences in MLS have added to your growth by teaching you humility. 
Your entire 3rd year was an exercise in discovering your strengths and weaknesses, coming to terms with them, and accepting both praise and criticism gracefully. 
It was hard to be evaluated each and every day of your hospital rotation; it was hard to accept feedback that you may or may not have felt was justified. But you all did it, and because of this you will have a big advantage in the workplace, as well as in life.  
Having a positive approach to learning will always serve you well. You know that imperfection is only human. The important thing is that we all try to do better. And keep in mind that misery is optional. 
You have also learned what friendship means. In the years ahead, you will remember your friends very fondly . One definition of a friend is “a friend is one who dislikes the same people that you dislike.” There is a lot of truth in this, but a better way to think of friendship is to realize that the only way to have a friend is to be one. You have all done that during your university days. 
Let me remind you that universities have always stood for the dignity of each human being—for the belief that each individual is to be appreciated for what they uniquely think, do, and feel. I want you to realize that you are important and have had an impact on your friends and teachers in MLS. 
Earlier I said that, whether you realize it or not, you are going to be unofficial ambassadors for MLS. Over the years, you have seen many role models—instructors, professors, nurses, doctors, and technologists. As ambassadors-—-with personalities and styles of their own—they succeeded to varying degrees in creating good-will for their professions. Soon you too will have this responsibility. 
As you leave MLS, remember the people who have influenced you. Think of those who have treated you with dignity and patience, who smiled rather than frowned, who took the time to criticize constructively, who showed you how to solve problems as medical laboratory scientists, who loved their subject, and who challenged you to be your very best. 
These are the people you will want to emulate as you become role models for others. And now, graduates—this is your night. You have struggled and succeeded in a difficult program. We, your instructors, are very proud of you. You have chosen a rewarding and challenging career.  
In conclusion, it's a cliche but always believe in yourself. You are graduates of the most rigorous Medical Laboratory Science program in Canada and one of the best in the world.  And don't be afraid to dream of what you want in life. No matter what the future holds, you have the right stuff to succeed.
Of the 22 students in the 1991 MLS graduating class, here's what I know 26 years later about their careers. Most, as would be expected, went on to have careers as medical lab technologists/scientists. But the 1990s brought severe healthcare cuts in Alberta and throughout Canada and jobs became scarce. Graduates' careers I'm aware of:
  • Went to NZ to work for New Zealand Blood Service (NZBS) - 2
  • Worked for CBS, Canada's national blood supplier for years - 2
  • Dentist - 1 
  • Lawyer - 1 (after years of working as a med lab tech in Canada and later for NZBS)
  • PhD (microbiology) - 1
  • Gynecologist -1 (who was in Christchurch, NZ on a fellowship learning advanced laparoscopic surgery when the earthquake struck in 2011)
  • Radiologist - 1 (after many years of working as a med lab tech in USA)
To me, this validates that graduates of MLS at the University of Alberta learned many transferable skills and had the self-confidence to believe in themselves and accept challenges, as well as to dream. As one example, the MLS grads who went to NZ to work for NZBS (six in all from several graduating classes) were brave indeed and went through all the government hoops and regulations, requiring incredible stamina and belief that they could do it, no matter what. 

I'll share correspondence I had with one grad (John) 8 years later (when he was 30 years old) and again, 14 years post-graduation. John, like most MLS grads, had written the USA's ASCP(MT) exams when he graduated from the University of Alberta MLS program. As a result, he could go to the USA under NAFTA with a BSc (MLS) and work in a profession that was deemed needed in the United States. He worked for years as a med lab tech in Montana and also acquired EMS certification and worked part time as a firefighter. 

He wrote me and 3 others in MLS in 1999 because he had obtained his green card and could apply to U.S. medical schools and needed references from his instructors.

Bottom line was that John was accepted into an American medical school in ND, interned in Spokane, Washington, and later got a residency at the coveted Mayo Clinic in 2005, followed by specializing in radiology.He also did a fellowship in Neuroradiology at the Mayo Clinic. 
Mayo Clinic info (1999):"The Mayo residency and fellowship programs are among the most sought-after in the world. Last year, nearly 7,000 people applied for slightly more than 360 positions....Last year, the medical school accepted only 42 new students and only about 5% of those who applied for a residency or a fellowship."
Going back to MLS, in the 3rd year, students rotate through the clinical laboratories in groups of 3 or 4. I distinctly recall John's group because they were so motivated and, more importantly, so much fun to teach. Honestly, everyone should be so lucky to have such students.

John rotated with two female students (Donna and Jennifer), who both went to to work for NZBS in Hamilton, NZ for several years. Jennifer eventually became a lawyer and now works for a law firm in Edmonton where she represents hospitals/health regions and their employees, including AHS . Donna, who prior to NZ had worked for years in a Las Vegas mega-lab where technologists were more like factory workers, later worked for CBS and now works in a local hospital laboratory.

My spouse and I visited NZ for 6 weeks in 1998-99 over Christmas/New Years and touched base with two of the MLS grads, including Donna, who had the courage to go to a foreign country to practice their profession. They had made the best of a bad situation and were loving their foreign adventure.

These grads believed in themselves and were great ambassadors for MLS at the University of Alberta.

While the MLS grads worked for NZBS, a US software company visited to demonstrate and pitch its blood bank software. Reason I know this is that the software company (Wyndgate Technologies, now Haemonetics Software Solutions) contacted me. 

Specifically, they wanted to know if MLS had more grads like the ones working at NZBS because they were very impressed with them and would love to hire some.

Bottom line: Two MLS grads were brave enough to transition to software testing and moved to Sacramento, California to work for Wyndgate in 2000. One worked for Wyndgate/Haemonetics for 15 years, latterly in a senior management position.

I chose Joni Mitchell's 1967 song for two reasons. Of note, it has been covered ~600 times by other artists and counting. 

First, I love it. By any standard, Canada's Joni Mitchell is a songwriting genius.

Second, to me it means that life isn't always what you expect it to be. We win some, lose some in the careers we choose but in the end we're left with the illusion of what we hoped it would be. And that's okay providing we acquired the skills to follow our dreams past the illusion. Perhaps too philosophical?
I've looked at life from both sides now 
From win and lose and still somehow 
It's life's illusions I recall 
I really don't know life at all. 

As always, comments are most welcome.

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