Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Whacky Antics of a Laboratory Night Shift Staff; No Not My Lab? - Oh Yes!

 What goes on behind the door down the hall leading to "that Laboratory"

For the most part Clinical Laboratories are tight run ships, designed with aspects of quality, efficiency, and redundancy.  Staff are well trained and train new staff as needed.  Equipment is well kept, maintained meticulously, calibrated per specification, and checked with quality control systems on a daily basis.  The busiest sections of a clinical laboratory often have multiples of the same instruments to have built in redundancy in case an instrument needs maintenance or is flat out broke.  The work goes on especially in a hospital laboratory where it is 24/7/365.  Well what about those clinical laboratory scientists?  Are they calibrated, checked with QC, well maintained, with built in redundancy?  You can bet on that.  Often, the off shift staff are highly trained multi-taskers who master all sorts of tasks on all the laboratory instruments and procedures.  When one scientist goes on break another can come up right in their place and carry on the task at hand whether it be calibration procedures, quality control processes, specimen testing, or maintenance.  What about that break time?  What about when sample receipt in the lab is slow?  What do the wacky scientists do?  I will tell you what they do?  They play Bocce-Bagel! They play Poker.  They sleep.  Sometimes they sleep at the microscope-more about that later.  They take the elevator up to the roof of the building.  Most laboratory directors would say "not my staff - not my night shift, they don't do those sort of things". 

Let me tell you as one who worked many years on the off-shift in a terribly busy Level 1 trauma center; there must be some entertaining distractions or quality of the work will suffer, boredom and weariness set in.  Mostly the distractions clinical staff will employ to refresh themselves are harmless and rarely illegal.  One such distraction for our group of night shifters was what we called "Bocce-Bagel".  Day shift would often get goodies from vendors and often those goodies would consist of several large bags of bagels.  Bagels are cheap. They were plentiful.  It would tick us night shifters off when a dozen or more bagels would be left out open on a counter all day and were stale as a brick by 11 PM.  Oh yeah there would be a note on them "Enjoy", but enjoying them meant cracking your teeth down to bloody nubs! So, what do a dozen half baked scientists do with 2 dozen stale rock hard bagels?  You guessed it.  They throw them around and eventually come up with a systematic way to diffuse on the job stress - the Bocce Bagel way.  This is how you play.
Get your bagels and hand one to each player.  If they are all plain bagels name them with a lab pen.
Go down the hall; every lab has a long hallway of say 25-30 feet long ending at a wall.
Ante up with a quarter, dime, or for the money bags amongst you all, play for a dollar a toss.
One by one players toss their bagel down the hall towards the wall.
Player who comes closest to the wall wins the toss.
Repeat as necessary to relieve stress.

So what are some of the antics we resorted to, err I mean employed to diffuse stress, refresh, and otherwise widen our eyes?  Well of course Nap.  Cat nap that is.  Some of us learned to nap in a lab chair devoid of arm rests; that is quite a feat let me tell you.  Some labs have phlebotomy chairs.  Cushy, comfy chairs with arm rests just like Grandpa used to lay in on a Sunday afternoon and "Cat-Nap".  Oh yeah!  I worked in a hospital a short time that had a cot.  A real good cot padded heavily with accompanying blankets.  Uh well I am just saying it was a nice cot in case a patient was feeling ill during phlebotomy procedures.  Other means for a quick cat nap often make you look like your are actually doing work! Imagine that.  You walk into the lab and see Charlie over their working his heart out at the microscope.  He's reading gram stains and cell counts on that spinal fluid that came down from the ER.  NOT!  Charlie is sleeping.  He looks like he is working.  His forehead is resting on the microscope oculars and he is lights out.  10 minutes, 15, 30 minutes go by...maybe someone should go wake up Charlie; he has been reading that same gram stain for the last half hour.  Nah - let him sleep.  An hour goes by.  A code is called over the public address system.  Charlie wakes up and oh yes he has the tell tale signs of "Ocular Narcosis".  Hard circles embedded so deep into the skin of his forehead they barely go away by the time the day shift starts showing up.  "Sleep is a beautiful thing", I think some mattress company once said.  Anyway.  What else did we do.
Lab Scientist Ocular Narcosis

Exploring - Yes we were like Magellan and Christopher Columbus going where we never went before.  Up the elevator, down to the basement, out the back door, we would have gone to the moon and back if we had a space ship!  One such jaunt was scary as hell.  It was winter, dead winter and January cold.  Windy, blustery, and freezing.  Let's go to the roof! Yes lets get on top of the building and look out over the land.  With only our lab coats to protect us up the elevator we went to the 19th floor.  We searched for a way out and the way out we wanted was in the vertical direction.  Yes we found it.  It looked like a broom closet door.  After we pried it open, alas there was a cat walk and narrow metal grate stairway going up.  After climbing up the the narrow stairs another door but it was unlocked this time.  We did not mean to fling the door open but it sort of pulled out of our hands.  You see the wind created a draft so strong the door flung open viciously as soon as it cleared the latch mechanism.  Oh wow.  Look at that.  You could see for a great distance up here.  It was dark, it was very windy, it was shiverrrrring cold, our teeth were chattering.  There were no safety bars, no fence, nor any other safety mechanism from keeping us on that roof and not flying away like the "Flying Nun".  Ok lets go back down now - yeah lets its cold up here!

Another pass time came from necessity.  You see at the back hallway of the laboratory was an exit door leading to the outside out to the back of the hospital.  Just outside the exit door there was the new MRI building.  MRI was new back then.  MRI was a mysterious machine housed in a closed off building.  No Metal Objects Allowed the signs all said.  Well we kept away alright.  But there were others that were brave enough to get close to that building.  Flies.  Insects of the black Fly kind.  I swear I never saw flies so big almost the size of a quarter.  They would come into the building from the back door out by the new MRI building.  Those incredibly strong magnets were growing flies so big they could take down a small dog.  Into the lab they would fly those flies.  They were hungry flies.  You know what they liked to eat?  Blood smears.  They would land on the freshly made blood smears in Hematology lab and suck up the drying blood on the glass slides.  How disgusting is that.  After their meal they would fly up to the ceiling and warm themselves around the fluorescent lights.  I had to do something about this.  That back door was used as an employee exit so it was constantly letting flies into the building.  We had patients up stairs for goodness sakes.  So here comes Hemabond to the rescue.  Hemabond was the ultimate laboratory multi-tasker.  Hemabond carried a gun - a very nasty rubber band gun.  Loaded with discarded rubber tubing from the coagulation analyzer and adeptly handled by the likes of Hemabond those flies did not have a chance.  I kept the gun inside my lab coat.  Down my sleeve it would sit at the ready.  It was big enough to stretch the rubber tubing 10 inches!  It had a real trigger mechanism.  It was a real beauty of hard wood and metal parts from a hanger used to hang slacks in my closet.  Doctors would walk into the lab and not have a clue they were talking to a super-hero of sorts, carrying a high powered rubber band gun.  Legend has it that I was on the phone calling a critical lab result, sitting in a lab chair at the front of the lab.  Another scientist walked in and pointed up at the ceiling.  I pulled out my weapon of mass fly destruction, aimed with one arm while giving report to a nurse, BLAM! Down that fly came.  Charlie was impressed! He laughed all the way back to Chemistry lab.  I even went out front of the hospital to the traffic circle, sat on the benches, concealed carrying my weapon under my lab coat.  Oh what fun!

Then there was the cafeteria.  Oh the joy of the cafeteria at 2 in the morning.  The grand eatery would open to a narcolepsy afflicted crowd.  One notorious morning, we ventured up to the cafeteria cause this was a typical laboratory down in the basement, two floors below ground, except for the exit out back by the MRI building.  We were bored almost to death.  The usual cafeteria fare was abundant like burgers, eggs any style, toast, day old wrapped sandwiches and other nutritionally challenged offerings.  Peering down into the wells in front of the "Chef"; well she had chef clothes and a chef hat  so we assumed she was a chef.  Who were we to challenge her - who cared?  One of us was bold enough to ask what the green stuff was in the smoldering stainless steel bin with green crud caked up on the sides an inch thick.  As it turns out that was "Split Pea Soup".  Your head had to be split open with a hatchet before eating that stuff.  "What you got to go with that brown gravy" was asked of the esteemed chef?  She looked at the offerings in front of her and said "nothing?".  She had gravy, brown gravy.  No mashed, no french fries, no biscuits, no roast beef.  Nothing to go with the gravy!  Such was the grand experience of the cafeteria at the big hospital at 2 AM.

What else did we do.  Let me see...  Oh yes, Cards.  We played poker in the big conference room.  We had seating for 20 or so.  Sometimes it got cut throat. I did not play much.  I hated to part with my money that way back then.  So I just watched and was glad I was not involved in the sham of it all.  I guess sitting there at the table watching was almost as bad as participating directly as far as management was concerned.  I did like Boccie-Bagel though.  And I always had the Hemabond gun in case things got out of hand.

Well you see working night shift is tough.  You constantly feel like you are sleep walking, everything is "fuzzy", your eyes are tired and blood shot, always weary.  Distractions were just a way to cope with the stresses of the job.  Coffee, lots of coffee helped.  We really did not need the cafeteria though because when we got together for holiday celebrations we really had a feast.  We had a whole turkey dinner once.  All the fixings and deserts abound.  We really lived it up on the night shift.  The work got done.  We did our jobs. We were saving lives.  Level 1 trauma lives.

Well take care my Lab friends.  Don't wake up with Ocular Narcosis.  Your reading glasses will not cover those deep circles.

Scott R. Mayorga  A.A.S., BS MT(ASCP)H CLS

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