Thursday, April 30, 2020

Could I have this dance (Musings on a love affair with transfusion medicine for NMLW)

Updated: 3 May 2020 (Fixed typos)  

Because it's National  Medical Laboratory Week, for April's blog I'll share brief anecdotes from the labs of the blood suppliers and transfusion services I've worked for, including when an educator. These are the personal anecdotes of an oldster and I hope that some of them give a chuckle, albeit a wry one.

Keep in mind that I last had a real job working in a clinical laboratory 20 years ago. But I taught many students who still work and we keep in touch. Plus I manage a transfusion mailing list for the Canadian Society for Transfusion Medicine and an educational transfusion website, so keep up-to-date in the field.

The blog's title is based on a 1980 ditty by Canada's Anne Murray, and yes, it's an allegory for what I want to convey in this blog.

1. CRC-BTS [Canadian Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service] 
CRC-BTS in Winnipeg, MB, Canada is where I began my career in 1964. It was a combined blood donor centre and central transfusion service for the city and outlying areas of Manitoba and northwest Ontario. In those days Winnipeg hospitals did not have blood banks per se but functioned merely as distribution centres of blood, whose 'blood banks' were managed by hospital RNs. 

As I've written before, today I would never be hired as I had a general BSc (not when hired, though), and no med lab training. My knowledge of blood was close to nil. Nonetheless, CRC-BTS became my family for 13 years and I thrived. Fact is, I loved coming to work each day as I never knew what it would entail and what else I'd learn.

I decided to read the current immunohematology bibles (textbooks and journals) and eventually wrote the CSMLS (then CSLT) subject exam in immunohematology (now transfusion science), which no longer exists as a subject exam. 

Tidbit: As a subject blood banker, I'm a dinosaur who no longer exists in Canada. At one point I took offense when the then CSLT President said those with subject certification were only good for chopping liver. Think I wrote a letter to the Society's newsletter in rebuttal. 

Then I became the clinical instructor for med lab students from Red River Community College (now Red River College), new CRC-BTS lab staff, and any trainee physicians who wanted to learn about the transfusion service. 

Teaching was a natural as after the science faculty, I took a short session in the Faculty of Education and taught high school in rural Manitoba for a year. Yes, the school I taught in was so desperate for teachers they took someone without a BSc and 3 months education training. Main subjects taught were chemistry and maths but many more as it was a 4-room high school. 

Same with CRC-BTS, they hired me without a BSc (I'd goofed off and failed physics in my first year). Eventually after 3 years, management pressed me to get the BSc and I obliged with a night course in what I recall as the 'new algebra'.   

Anecdote #1 
There were no SOPs at CRC-BTS, and before I became the clinical instructor, what students and new hires learned depended on which technologist trained them on-the-job. You can imagine what fun that was for trainees. Today, med lab training is based on competencies and students are evaluated daily, but not then. 

Finally, I decided to write SOPs for the transfusion service (TS) part of the operation on my holidays at a local lakeside cabin. Whatever possessed me? This was before I became the clinical instructor. So why did I do it? Lo and behold, the crossmatch lab used the SOPs I'd written. The SOPs weren't validated, we were in a wild west world where anything goes. 

Anecdote #2
At one point a new hire with a general BSc had a disability that included having deformed hands. She could do all laboratory tasks well (TS wasn't automated and everything was done by manually pipetting) but when it came to her compulsory medical done a few months into the job, the physician said she could not do the job and should be let go. 

After I spoke to other medical lab technologists, we unanimously agreed that we should all sign a letter to management saying she could do the job and we did. So why did we do it? Bottom line: She was kept on and stayed in the job for decades, eventually becoming a supervisor/manager. 

2. MLS [Medical Laboratory Science, University of Alberta]
In late 1977 I was hired as an MLS instructor to teach introductory transfusion science, with a joint appointment as the clinical instructor for the University of Alberta Hospital transfusion service (UAH-TS). I was sad to leave my pals and family in Winnipeg but excited to move to Edmonton and meet the challenge of teaching at a university. Yes, in MLS I loved coming to work each day as you never knew what it would entail, students being students, and what else I'd learn.

Anecdote #3
As the prior transfusion instructor had unexpectedly left after attending an AABB conference and meeting a young man 😂, the position was temporarily filled by an experienced med lab technologist from the UAH-TS. Indeed, she had applied for the job but did not get it as she lacked a BSc.

This technologist became a dear, close friend, showed me the ropes, how to navigate the hospital, and introduced me to the local blood bank community, which became my new family. She also got me involved in the CSMLS in several ways, including recommending me for the Certification Board, a 3-year appointment. So why did she do it?  

Anecdote #4
As mentioned earlier, I lacked education and training in medical laboratory science and managed to learn transfusion in-depth through reading and broad practical experience in a busy joint blood centre and transfusion service. In MLS most colleagues were graduates of MLS and they too befriended me, put up with my many deficiencies, became my family, and generously taught me the key things I needed to know in other clinical lab disciplines. I'm forever grateful. So why did they do it? 

3. CBS (Canadian Blood Services, Edmonton)
After MLS, I was lured to take a job at CBS as an assistant lab manager, where I was in charge of the patient services laboratory (PS lab): pretransfusion testing, prenatal testing. Not quite the job I expected, as it was promoted as having a significant teaching component. I refer to it as my 'assman' job as that's how the QA dept. addressed my correspondence. Again, I loved coming to work each day as I never knew what it would entail, more specifically what new knowledge and skills I'd learn. 

Anecdote #5
The person who had been running the lab on a temporary basis was in the first MLS class I taught all the way through, one of my 'kids' as I call them. She was an assistant to the person in the manager job prior to me. She should have gotten the job I now had, but nonetheless, she kindly showed me the CBS ropes and performed any function I asked her to do. So why did she do it? 

Anecdote #6
All of the PS lab staff (supervisors, technologists, lab assistants, clerical) generously welcomed me, a rank outsider. One of the big projects we had was being the Canadian pilot site for a new CBS computer system (Mak Progesa). In conjunction with the new lab information system, I decided to change most of the PS lab's serological and policy SOPs to update them, including instituting the electronic crossmatch. 

Despite what must have been stressful, all staff pitched in, performed above and beyond, and did so as a team with great camaraderie. In retrospect, I suspect we had a lot of fun meeting the training challenges. So why did they do it?

4. PLC [Consulting career]
I won't go into the many adventures I had in a consulting career as that's another blog. 

So the questions above ask why did I, she, they do it? The answer is the same for all. 

My experience is that medical lab technologists (biomedical scientists) who work in transfusion, and I suspect all clinical laboratories, are a close-knit family dedicated to protecting patient safety. Why do I say family? Because just like a biological family, the medical laboratory family has little to nil to do with ancestors and genes and everything to do with love, compassion, and support for members of the team.  

Perhaps transfusion is even more so a family, because we are a comparatively  small group. For example, when I was active in the profession I knew many med lab technologists in blood centres and transfusion services across Canada. When the Internet made international mailing lists possible, the family grew to include lab professionals from around the world. 

For all the positions I held throughout a long career, members of the family became lifelong pals. I think of my career and those of my colleagues as a long love affair with transfusion medicine and laboratory medicine that's never ended. I hope that those who work as med lab professionals in any discipline are lucky enough to feel the same, indeed, workers in any field. That I lucked out with my career is an understatement and I'm sure many of my transfusion colleagues over the years feel the same way.

Happy National Medical Laboratory Week (April 26 to May 2, 2020 in Canada). Though largely hidden from the public and working behind the scenes, we in clinical laboratories play a crucial role in diagnosing and treating diseases. 

I chose this song as a allegory for how so many medical laboratory technologists (biomedical scientists) feel about transfusion, myself included. 
Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?
Would you be my partner every night?
When we're together it feels so right
Could I have this dance for the rest of my life? 

As always, comments are most welcome and appreciated. See some below.


  1. Roger Strange7:27 PM

    Loved this lot - and I know what you mean about having "this dance". Retired now for 16years, but I still read TraQ, and still love transfusion medicine (I still think Blood Bank is an easier name - sort of trips off the tongue).
    Good on you, Pat - from one dinosaur to ... (no I didn't say it!"

    1. My second reply on a personal note. Thanks for the chuckle on the dinosaur thing, Roger. Also suspect you're basking in wonderful weather on Canada's west coast.Hope your retirement is wonderful.

  2. Thanks, Roger. Agree about blood bank, similar to BBers. There are indeed plenty of us BBers with the lifelong love affair.

  3. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Offered with your typical generosity of spirit, and it is most appreciated.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous. Fact is, but for the kind generosity of the many colleagues I mentioned, my career in Medical Laboratory Science, and later at CBS, could easily have been hell.