The Long Way Home
Heather Herrington, DVM, MLS(ASCP)CM
I started a new job recently, doing testing for SARS-CoV-2, and the person who trained me did not have a medical background. At one point, it seemed to hit him how big of an impact we could have if we got something wrong. Either a false negative or false positive could be devastating, and as I watched this dawn on him, my unspoken reaction was, “Well, duh.”
Medical laboratory science is actually my fourth career. I started off my adult working life as a veterinarian, doing primarily emergency and shelter medicine. For years, I have been acutely aware of how any mistake I made could be life-altering. However, rather than being paralyzed by fear, I have learned how to approach the things I do with a healthy dose of respect.
When I was in veterinary school, I actually worked as a student employee in their clinical diagnostic laboratory. We students covered after-hours (5pm-10pm), overnight on-call, and weekends. During my first several months, I was terrified that I’d screw up. Our reports were stamped “preliminary” and verified by one of the laboratorians on their next shift. I would always stop by the day after my shifts to see whether any changes had been made to my results, to make sure I continued learning and getting more accurate. It was satisfying to see the number of corrections basically disappear the longer I worked there.
In a way, ending up in this field is like coming home. It’s a way to be involved in medicine without having to cope with some of the emotional effects of working directly with patients or owners. I also think that having been on the clinical side gives me a valuable perspective. As a clinician, I knew quite well that no result (or a delayed result) was radically better than an incorrect value. If something about a result seems “off”, I have enough confidence in my background to question it, rather than just report it. I can also empathize with folks on both sides of the fence.
I will readily admit, though, that nothing in my history could have prepared me for certain aspects of human laboratory medicine. It’s a common phrase among my colleagues: “Veterinary medicine: Because humans are gross.” I never truly appreciated the reality of that statement until I saw a specimen cup full of sputum. It made me long for the days of impacted anal glands and vomit that smelled like chocolate. I guess you can bring the woman back into the lab, but some things never change: Humans are gross.