You might not see Michael Blodgett, Quinn Bate, Ryan Bielik, Brittany Russett and Mary Malmquist when you go to the hospital to get your blood drawn, but they're there, and they play a very important role in the outcome of your test.
They are some of the people behind the scenes, the unseen faces in the laboratory, spinning and separating your blood, looking at it through a microscope and sending the results to your doctor so you can get an accurate diagnosis and be on your way to better health.
Clinical lab science is a fast-growing field, and the demand for graduates in this program is increasing.
Last month, U.S. News and World Report listed lab techs as one of the 50 best careers of 2010, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an industry growth rate between 12 and 16 percent.
In addition, Weber State University and ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City recently formed a partnership to offer a distance-learning lab technician and medical technologist program.
Of the three Utah universities that offer a clinical lab science degree, WSU had the highest number of recent graduates, said Kristofer Beldin, public relations coordinator at ARUP.
"At ARUP Laboratories, medical lab technicians and medical technologists are the lifeblood of our laboratory, running most of our tests, many of which are rather complex," Beldin said.
"The diagnostic laboratory, whether in a hospital or a national reference lab like ours, is a critical, though often-unseen, aspect of the health care industry. We are always looking for skilled lab and med techs to work at our laboratory."
Karen Mata, an ARUP Laboratories recruiting manager, said more than 3,000 tests and test combinations are done at her lab.
She said a new graduate can expect to start at up to $37,500 per year, based on national averages. People willing to work afternoons, nights and weekends can earn even more.
ARUP is a national clinical and anatomic pathology reference laboratory, owned by the University of Utah, with cutting-edge equipment. The lab provides opportunities for people to become specialized in various areas, including genetics, infectious disease, molecular oncology and immunological diseases.
Malmquist, a technical specialist for the amino acid lab in the biochemical genetic department at ARUP, said the lab receives samples for testing from all over the country. Tests can identify everything from toxic agents and abnormal blood cells to rare genetic diseases.
Scott Wright, professor and CLS department chairman at WSU, said the CLS program is designed to teach students how to work in a clinical laboratory. Developed in the 1980s, the department also offers an online program. The program focuses on urinalysis, hematology, chemical chemistry, clinical microbiology and blood bank.
"Students learn every aspect the faculty can possibly teach about working in a clinical laboratory, such as a hospital, clinic or reference laboratory," Wright said.
"Our program is based on simulated laboratories where we try to mimic the patient samples and work flow found in laboratory settings."
Work and school
Students accepted into the program earn a two-year associate degree and then move on to a bachelor's degree, Wright said. One of the most attractive aspects of the program is the fact that students can work in a clinical lab while they are going to school.
Bielik is one of those students. Bielik, a third-year CLS student, works in the lab at McKay-Dee Hospital.
"I really enjoy it, because I'm gaining a lot of experience while I'm still going to school," he said. "I wanted to go into the field because it has a scientific discipline, which I'm interested in, and it's a field where you can really help people."
All hospitals have laboratories that need good technicians, Wright said.
Blodgett, a graduate in the Weber State CLS program, works in the lab at Ogden Regional Medical Center.
"I was actually headed into the forensic science field, but one of my prerequisite classes was in lab sciences," Blodgett said. "I really enjoyed the class, so I decided to change my major."
Blodgett said because there is a shortage in the field, it's fairly easy to find a job.
"A lot of the baby boomers are retiring, so there are quite a few openings around," he said.
"I love my work, because I not only get to work in the lab, I get to work in the blood bank, microbiology, hematology and chemistry. We run hundreds of tests. It's quite sophisticated, and I'll tell you, the blood knows everything."
Russett, a clinical lab assistant at Davis Hospital and Medical Center in Layton, said blood work is critical in deciphering whether a patient is having a heart attack, or has cancer or a deadly infection.
Lab work, she said, is one of the most vital tools for a physician in identifying and diagnosing an illness in a patient as well as monitoring the effectiveness of drug treatments, matching blood units for transfusions and tracking the progression of a disease.
"Blood, urine and other body fluids are not something you would think contribute very much to treatment or diagnosis, but it has become one of the most important aspects of health care," she said. "Even without ever seeing a patient, by working in the lab, you are helping save lives."
The CLS program also is used as a steppingstone into other careers, Wright said. Track I is for students who intend to work in a clinical laboratory when they graduate. Track II is for preprofessionals who move on to other specialties.
That's what Bate intends to do. The Ogden resident, who works in the central lab at Intermountain Medical in Murray, graduated from Weber State in the spring with a CLS degree. He plans to go to dental school.
"The CLS program really gives you a lot of variety to choose from," Bate said. "You can do a ton of things. For me, I decided to continue on to dentistry, but I am really enjoying my work in the central lab right now."
Bate said although people in the lab don't interact with patients, they still see some heartbreaking blood results.
"You always wonder about the children and newborns," he said.
"When they have blood counts that come back abnormal, your heart just goes out to them. You hope the people with meningitis and cancer will recover from their illness, but you're also really happy for the people who go home with good news."