The Science of Saving a Life

Christmas is over, a New Year has begun, and I am busy as hell.

I actually had this whole week off, and I was intending to spend it in the beautiful new library, obsessively preparing for this coming semester, which I have been told is to be brutal. Lee and I spent last week down south celebrating the holidays with my family and a week of quiet library time seemed the ideal way to preface the coming academic onslaught.

It was not to be.

The internet at large will forgive me sparing the gory details, and to those reading this that know me- everyone is going to be ok! But my “quiet” week has been a whirlwind of crowded last-minute flights, doctors, ICUs, surgeries, lots of uncertainty, and more body fluids than I think safe to discuss.

Peritoneal fluid mixed with bile, baby. Oh yeah.

So I’m in Seattle. In a hospital that’s not mine, a strange reversal from confident healthcare professional to exhausted and wide-eyed family member.

This is going somewhere, I swear. On Monday, I start my first real Med Tech class. I certainly didn’t expect to be starting it from a cot in the corner of an ICU room, but life comes at you fast, kids.

People ask me a lot why I chose to study medical laboratory science. It’s something most folks haven’t even heard of, never considered, but nonetheless might save their life someday. In fact, since doctors base something like 80% of their diagnostic and treatment decisions on information from the laboratory, there’s a pretty good chance that the lab will save their life, and yours, at some point.

Pasteur and Koch’s work with microorganisms and the germ theory of disease may have brought medicine into the modern age, but I firmly believe that it is the medical laboratory and the ability it grants to not just detect but quantify hidden properties of the body that will keep us there.

Your blood is like a book written about you, and the lab is the only place that can crack it open and read it. Your blood can tell us if you’re at risk for heart attack. It can tell us if you’re having a heart attack. It can tell us if you have an infection, if you’re anemic, if you have ovarian cancer, if you had a stroke, what your blood sugar has been for the last three months, if you lifted too many weights at the gym yesterday, and so on and so forth. New advances in genetic testing are even allowing us to take a peek inside your DNA for clues about everything from tailored medication dosage to risk of autoimmune disease.

So, it’s important. It’s exciting and fascinating and it matters. I don’t have the patience or the innate compassion to be a nurse. I don’t want to give up my life to become a doctor. But you can bet when you’re sick I’ll be there help, saving your life with science.

Post Script 1:  If you’re interested in learning more about lab science, the American Association of Clinical Chemistry publishes a great peer-reviewed resource called Lab Tests Online which provides detailed information on most laboratory tests as well as a variety of lab-related topics. Of particular interest: Inside the Lab.