Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Don't Touch That Bottle

Health care is a glamorous profession (in my own mind) as there is electronic technology, emotion, tragedy, defeat, and countless victories.  In my profession, Clinical Laboratory Science, there is a great amount of technology, computers, servers, switches, interfaces, and the really cool stuff like microscopes, stainers, automation...I could go on and on.  It is glamorous in my own mind but usually not anyone else that I know outside of the laboratory.  Rarely, does the job get dangerous.  But it is science.  In the field of sciences things can get a bit risky.  I have had patients try to bite me when drawing blood.  I have had patients faint, get ill, and even have heart attacks just after phlebotomy procedures.  Maybe it was my devastating looks?  Nah! but it couldn't have been my technique...could it?  Anyway.

I have never lost my composure on the job except for almost once.  I have been interrogated, lied to, falsely accused of taking too long of a lunch break, stripped of bonuses, etc.  However, I did almost lose it way back in 1981..  Let's see - I remember it well.

While in college for my A.A.S MLT degree there was one day I could not go to a Chemistry class.  No one went to their classes that day at Lupton Hall.  The building was evacuated as the Suffolk (New York) County Bomb Squad was dispatched to remove some chemicals from a store room that were "unstable".
After graduating, I was lucky enough to get hired at the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, New York as a lab aid for that summer before the start of fall classes at C.W.Post LIU.  It was late summer, a very hot day indeed.  I was assigned to work in the chemistry lab that week.  I was setting up assays for blood phosphorus levels to be analyzed by spectrophotometry.  I went into the storeroom down the hall from the chemistry lab to look for some kim-wipes and I was startled by what I also found on one of the shelves.  Inquisitive, I always was and still am, I found a crusty very old brown glass bottle with a paper label on it.  On the label were the words "PICRIC ACID".  Now, picric acid was and still is a common test reagent for creatinine testing in blood and urine. This was not a full bottle of acid though.  There were crystals in the drying liquid on the bottom of this glass vessel.  I was shocked, I was startled.  I was frightened.

Back in school, the bomb squad was called in to remove such a bottle of crystallized picric acid from a Lupton Hall storeroom. The bottle was disposed of, nobody got hurt, nothing damaged.  But, that was not the first time a bottle of picric acid caused trouble.  I had heard years back before I attended that school, a jar of such highly unstable substance did cause quite a racket with lots of heat, deformation, and noise.

Being a new graduate MLT working as a lowly lab-aide, I did the first thing that came to mind.  Go run and tell the supervisor; so I did.  I did not waste any time. "Freda" was the chemistry supervisor, very capable, bright, smart, and a very hard worker.  She was one of my first mentors in the lab business.  "Freda" I said, "You've got an old bottle of picric acid in the storeroom!"   She said "I do?" Ok... "Yea but it has crystals on the bottom of the jar"  I lamented.  She put down her pipette she was using to dispense chemicals with and said "Show Me".  I took her into the storeroom and pointed out the offending "terrorist" on the shelf.  She reached for the bottle and I said "Wait - Don't touch that bottle, not until I leave the building at least".  She asked me to leave the room; and so I went back down to my lab bench, to my phosphorus assays, and spectrophotometer. Hey! it was a Bausch & Lomb with a gauge needle instead of the easy to read LED model.  A few seconds later I hear footsteps shuffling into the chemistry lab, I turn around and what do I see... "Frigen Freda" with that bottle of unstable, potentially explosive, highly dangerous picric acid in her hands.  I ducked behind the sturdy steel and granite topped lab bench.  I just couldn't help but peak at what she did next.  She gingerly opened and removed the cap of the picric acid bottle, grabbed a bottle of what I think was hydrochloric acid, and slowly dribbled the HCL down the inside of the picric acid bottle.  After adding about 40-50 mL of HCL she slowly rolled the picric acid bottle to bring the crystals back into solution.  Then she dumped the contents of the picric acid bottle down the sink with copious amounts of water.  After that episode, I told "Freda" she should apply for the POLICE bomb squad.  She laughed and said "They don't pay enough for that job".

Back to my phosphorus testing, I completed my standard curve , QC, and patient samples.  Just another day at the lab I thought only months into my first Lab job at the infancy of my laboratory career.  Luckily my shift was only 4 hours, I could not wait to get out of there that day.

Turns out, the picric acid was scary, but not as scary as some of the psychotics I would encounter in the rest of my 30+ years in laboratory business.

Good day my friends -
Thanks for reading.

If you are bored, make an appointment at your local hospital for a tour of the laboratories.  Us Clinical Laboratory Scientists love to show off out gadgets and toys in the lab.  I promise -  No unstable picric acid though.

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