When Becky Wilson goes off to work as a medical laboratory technician, her specialty is blood.
Her domain is a laboratory at Regional Medical Center. It’s a large, clean room filled with tables and storage areas and the aforementioned instruments; there, the job of Wilson and her colleagues is to make sure blood that comes from the Red Cross in Birmingham is safe for the patients in Anniston who need it.
That requires the blood to be identified not only by the common markers everyone knows — A, B, AB, O — but by a host of other characteristics. These characteristics, if they’re introduced into the bloodstream of a person who’s not genetically able to handle them, can kill that person.
The blood arrives already separated into three components: plasma (the liquid part), platelets (the part that aids clotting) and the red cells themselves.
Different characteristics of these components determine how long, and under what conditions, they can be stored.
Blood components arrive in one of two different ways, depending upon the day of the week. Three days a week a Red Cross courier comes around; the rest of the time shipments come by Greyhound to the bus station and are taken in a taxi to the hospital, Wilson said.
The laboratory where Wilson works is staffed 24 hours a day to receive and test blood. That’s because police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel aren’t the only people who have to respond to scenes of suffering — someone has to ensure the blood that another person might be losing is replaced safely.
“Every day is different,” said Wilson. “It depends on what goes on in the ER.”
Not only do external emergencies require the blood lab to get busy, but there’s also the internal scheduling of the hospital’s operating rooms.
There might be 20 heart catheterization patients in a day, each of whom might need blood as a result of the process, she said.
Wilson, 42, is qualified to do her job by virtue of a year and a half of practical schooling plus six months of workplace training to get an associate’s degree. She’s been in the profession 21 years and is in her fifth year at RMC.
Hers is demanding work, in that it requires strict adherence to protocols for labeling blood to make sure the information on a label describes the blood in the container, e.g., a bag.
The red blood cells that arrive from the Red Cross are always retyped to make sure they’ve been labeled correctly.
“You have to be able to multi-task over here,” she said.
And while she never actually sees the patient to whom “her” blood is delivered, Wilson feels her work is personal nonetheless.
“We try to think of everybody as one of our family members,” she said. “It’s nice knowing that I can leave out of here (at the end of the day) knowing I helped somebody out.”
If you know of anyone who’ll talk about what he or she does for a living, or if you are such a person yourself, drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org for a possible write-up in “Off to Work.”