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Life of a Med Lab Scientist

I’m a full time Medical Laboratory Scientist in Core Lab at a level 1 Trauma center hospital

What’s it like to work in a hospital lab?

Many people don’t realize that there’s a huge state-of-the-art laboratory full of scientists like me right beneath their feet when they visit a hospital. And little do they know that their nurses and doctors wouldn't be able to treat their patients without the results we provide for them.

So what’s it like to work in a hospital lab? Besides the fact that we never get the respect of our fellow colleagues and we’re one of the most underpaid for our education level? It’s awesome!

Chemistry analyzer

One of many multi-million dollar instruments found in the lab

One of many multi-million dollar instruments found in the lab

I mean who wouldn’t want to play with blood, pee and poop all day long?

It’s obviously a bit more than just playing with body fluids (and for those that work in microbiology: body parts). I went to school for 6 years to be certified and educated as an MLS. I specialize in chemistry and hematology (which includes urinalysis, coagulation and body fluids). At any point in my job I am required to work these benches and I am the “expert” for that department all 8 hours of my shift.

So what does a typical week look like for me as an MLS?

DayHours 0-2Hours 2-8

Monday

Immunosuppressant drug testing & sweat chloride testing

Chemistry bench: maintenance, calibration & QC

Tuesday

Immunosuppressant drug testing

Hematology bench: triage and instrument QC

Wednesday

Immunosuppressant drug testing & sweat chloride testing

Urinalysis, Coagulation & Body Fluids

Thursday

Immunosuppressant drug testing

Chemistry bench: triage (and often instrument maintenance)

Friday

Immunosuppressant drug testing & sweat chloride testing

Hematology bench: cell differentials

What’s hematology all about? Glad you asked!

Hematology consists of 2 bench types. One bench is the triage bench that keeps the instruments running smoothly and calls critical values and checks for inconsistencies for your CBCs (Complete Blood Counts) which consist of your WBC (White Blood Cell) counts, RBC (Red Blood Cell) counts, and accessory values (like your H&H or Hemoglobin & Hematocrit) that tell you the average size and shape of your RBCs.
The second bench focuses on WBC differentials. In case it’s been awhile for you since biology class here’s a refresher: we have 5 normal WBCs:

  • Neutrophils
  • Lymphocytes
  • Monocytes
  • Eosinophils
  • Basophils

We make thin smears of blood on a glass slide, stain them to see the cells under a microscope, and then count the different cells we see out of 100 to give a percent. This bench is SUPER important because we can identify immature cells called blasts (although they’re not a ”blast” to have as a patient) which indicate leukemia.

Hematology under the microscope

medlabscience

But there’s more to Hematology than blood cells!

Coagulation. We like coagulation. Well those with heart disease don’t but the rest of us sure want our body to form clots and scabs when we cut ourselves! But there’s so much more involved in that process than most know. We have proteins and platelets and fibrin, oh my! All these things are checked in the coag department.

Body fluids. Ew am I right? I won‘t go too much into detail about body fluids other than it consists of just that, body fluids. Joint fluid, abdominal fluid, fluid around the heart. The most common we see is cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to test for meningitis among other things. We do cell differentials on them, as well, just like blood in hematology.

Urinalysis, or the land of pee pee as we like to refer to it. Wondering what happens when you send a cup of pee off to be tested? It lands in our laps (well not literally) then we get to test it for it’s chemical content and pH as well as the cellular components. We can tell how it was collected and how long it’s been chillin somewhere. The fun part of this bench is the microscopic part. I’ve seen things swim, eat, and shine like a diamond (the cheaper version anyway called crystals). I’ve also seen the rainbow of urine colors too (yellow, red, brown, and even green and blue). Fun stuff.

Calcium oxalate crystals sometimes found in urine

Aren’t they pretty! They also can be very painful and lead to kidney stones! Yikes!

Aren’t they pretty! They also can be very painful and lead to kidney stones! Yikes!

Are you grossed out yet?

Don’t worry, there’s always Chemistry to settle your stomach!

Chemistry is definitely the heart of the core lab. I mean I’m sure a lot of you know how important your electrolytes are (Na, K, and Cl)! These little elements alone can give doctors clues about your heart, kidneys, and liver. Amazing right?

Chemistry is also home to common tests like Troponin (to test for heart attacks), TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), and beta-HCG (the pregnancy test).


So as you can imagine chemistry is a big department! But what does all this mean to you? Well maybe next time your doctor has you go get labs drawn or you visit a hospital and they collect samples to send to the lab, you’ll think twice about what’s really going on behind the scenes. Doctors and nurses love to use us as a crutch often times because we are the ”unseen” component of healthcare. So next time your doctor says, “we’re waiting on your labs,” ask them to refresh their screen! In all seriousness though we really do care about the health and safety of all our patients (which can be thousands of patient samples in one shift) and we are trained to make sure you get the best results in the fastest time! So show a little love for your unsung healthcare heroes in the lab!

Also, if you are interested or considering a career in the amazing field of Medical Laboratory Science feel free to ask me questions! It often only takes 2 years to become a Medical Lab Technician (which is the same thing as an MLS just with an associates degree). We are always in short supply of techs and scientists!

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.