Away from the limelight, JGH lab technologists work 24/7 to process COVID-19 tests
During the recent holiday season, when most people were relaxing or gathering in small groups with their family, an invisible workforce in our CIUSSS was engaged in an around-the-clock offensive against COVID-19.
They worked days and nights. They worked weekends. They worked until their shoulders ached and their fingers hurt. They were the medical lab technologist at the Jewish General Hospital, and they churned out thousands of COVID-19 test results each day to help manage a coronavirus wave that was threatening to swamp the province.
Medical laboratory technologists are essential workers: The government relies on them to track COVID-19 cases, and patients depend on them to know if their results are positive or negative. Yet despite the crucial role of these professionals, few members of the public are even aware of their existence.
“We all know Santa and the gifts he delivers, but no one sees what the elves are doing in the workshop,” says JGH Medical Technologist Vanessa Resendes. “We’re the elves. We’re at work behind the scenes.”
Their critical yet largely overlooked role during the pandemic led the directors of Quebec’s medical biology labs to issue a public letter in December, thanking lab personnel for their “hard work and dedication.” (Medical labs in Quebec are organized into 11 clusters within the Optilab network, and the JGH is a major partner in Optilab-Montreal MUHC).
“We all know Santa and the gifts he delivers, but no one sees what the elves are doing in the workshop. We’re the elves.”JGH Medical Technologist Vanessa Resendes
Dr. Alan Spatz, Medical Director of Optilab-Montreal MUHC and a signatory of the letter, says lab workers went to great lengths to keep pace with demand and to ensure the province’s testing capacity “didn’t collapse.”
“Our lab employees have been at the frontlines during COVID-19, and they’ve earned recognition for playing an essential role in the healthcare system,” says Dr. Spatz, who is also the JGH Director of the Pathology. “It’s thanks to their commitment, expertise and stamina that we’ve been able to fulfill our mission and serve the public.”
In addition to the enormous pressures of COVID-19 testing, lab workers have had to continue with their regular diagnostic tasks, such as analyzing a brain biopsy for a cancer patient, or a blood coagulation test for someone in cardiac care. Whether the analysis is done for Hematology, Biochemistry, Pathology or Transfusion Services, it’s estimated that 70 per cent of medical decisions depend on a lab test.
“COVID-19 testing was a colossal task that was added to their already colossal tasks,” says Mathieu Provençal, Associate Director of the Optilab-Montreal MUHC. “The technologists put their shoulders to the wheel to make it work. I applaud their resilience and what they’ve endured for 22 months. It’s been a real war effort.”
“The microbiology lab at the JGH is a flagship for microbiology and COVID-19 testing for the entire province.”Dr. Alan Spatz, Medical Director of Optilab-Montreal MUHC
The technologists’ job at the JGH has been facilitated by a piece of state-of-the-art equipment called cobas 8800, which has increased the pace of molecular testing through automation. In operation since April 2021, it’s helped turn the JGH lab into a top-tier testing and service centre.
“The microbiology lab at the JGH is a flagship for microbiology and COVID-19 testing for the entire province,” Dr. Spatz says.
Still, the COVID-19 testing process relies on the hands-on expertise of technologists. After samples are delivered from COVID-19 testing sites, a lab worker has to uncap and handle tubes, label them, do computer data entry and analyze the results.
It’s exacting work. And with labs across the continent facing labour shortages, and some co-workers sidelined by COVID-19 themselves over the holidays, lab technologists at the JGH have sometimes felt pushed to near exhaustion. Yet they remained on the job, sometimes giving up vacations, motivated to do their part during an historic healthcare crisis.
JGH Medical Technologist Dipika Patel said that every time she saw people waiting in lines outside COVID-19 testing centres over the holidays, she felt a stab of anxiety because she knew she’d be flooded with samples to process and analyze. But she was determined to deliver test results in a timely way to help those who were awaiting their outcome.
“There were days when I was drained and it felt like things were going haywire,” says Ms. Patel. “But whenever I saw those line-ups, I knew people were relying on us to get their results. I felt for the patients and I’m happy I could make a difference.”
And there’s a silver lining to working in obscurity. Like the elves in Santa’s workshop, the lab technicians know they can rely on one another to get the job done. “We’ve banded together and created a strong unit,” Ms. Resendes says. “Even if hardly anybody knows we’re here, we know what we do.”