By TYLER MASK
Not many people can truly say that they always knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, but for one Mineral Wells resident, it’s all she has ever known.
Nearly 40 years ago, Palo Pinto General Hospital Laboratory Manager Rhonda Patterson, MT, began her career in high school through a work/study program in Mineral Wells.
Her cousin was the PPGH Laboratory Manager at the time and encouraged her to sign on as one of the three Mineral Wells High School students to work in the lab. Although PPGH no longer allows students from MWHS, Patterson recalls that things were different back then.
“I was a senior in high school and decided to go ahead and make this a career,” Patterson said. “Working as students here, and really we did, back then, almost everything that the techs did.
“It was very different times.”
At an early age, Patterson knew she wanted to help people, particularly in the medical field, but also realized that she tended to develop strong attachments. In order to protect her heart, she felt that becoming a Medical Technologist would be a good fit; however, she quickly learned that no matter what part of the medical field one joins, it’s still easy to grow attached to patients and their lives.
“It was a way to help people, I felt like, but not to get so attached to people,” Patterson said. “I’d always been interested in the medical field somehow, nursing or whatever, but I knew that if I were a nurse, I would probably tend to get attached to people, and death and things like that would really bug me.
“[But] I found that working in the lab doesn’t keep you immune from that because I still have a lot of patients that we really get attached to.”
To work in a hospital lab, there are several different routes one can take.
Phlebotomists and Medical Laboratory Technicians generally require a few months to two year’s worth of training and education, respectively. The third key position in the lab is that of a Medical Technologist, which generally comes with a four-year degree in Medical Technology.
“I went to school at Tarleton and got my Bachelors of Science in Medical Technology,” Patterson said. “I did a year of internship at Parkland, then I worked here all through that time going to school.”
During Patterson’s schooling, she got married but continued to work at PPGH until she had children.
“[I] got married between my sophomore and junior years, so I continued on here, and I worked here until 1980. I had my twins, and at that point, I needed more time at home. We had to take call at that time here. I didn’t have to take call at Weatherford.”
Before leaving for Weatherford, Patterson accrued six and a half years at PPGH. She then spent 14 years working for Campbell Hospital in Weatherford before returning to PPGH, where she has been back for 20 years come August.
One thing the Emergency Room and the lab have in common is that they are open 24/7, year-round. To meet this load, Patterson has six Medical Technologists, two Medical Laboratory Technicians, and six Phlebotomists, totaling 14 staff in all.
Beyond standard lab work, Patterson is in charge of making schedules, and keeping up with Joint Commission rules and regulations. JC is the national hospital and laboratory accrediting agency.
“If we don’t have that accreditation, we cannot bill Medicare for anything we do,” Patterson said. “We cannot bill insurances. We basically cannot function.
“So, that is an extremely important part of our job, [including] all of the managers of the hospital.
“And my job as the laboratory manager is to keep us right with the Joint Commission because they can strip it away if you’re not doing the things you’re supposed to be doing. The hospital [gets inspected] every three years, and the lab every two years.”
Labs have a multitude of tests, all with certain procedures that must be carried out just as the JC directs.
From Complete Blood Counts, which checks for things like anemia, white blood cell count and abnormalities, to Comprehensive Metabolic Panels, which checks glucose and contains a Blood Urea Nitrogen test to check kidney function, PPGH’s lab has plenty to keep up with, not to mention all of the technology involved, which is a far-cry from when Patterson first started.
“We have nice analyzers,” Patterson said. “Back when I started, we did everything manually. It was basic chemistry. You mix this with that – and whatever it read on the spectrophotometer – I mean you did everything manually.
“Now we have analyzers, state-of-the-art equipment – just like they have in Dallas and Fort Worth, nothing different – that you can just put the sample on. The analyzer reads the barcode, and it can do however many tests you want it to do on that patient.
“We probably can do about 50 to 60 different chemistry tests on our analyzer. I can do all of that on one sample.”
But lab workers are not solely dependent on technology as there are still plenty of processes that require manual work.
“There are some departments that are very hands on,” Patterson said. “Microbiology for one.
“Like if you want to see if someone has a urinary tract infection or pneumonia, you can do cultures on body fluids and see if there’s a bacteria there.
“Well that still requires our eyes and our hands to look at the culture plates to see if there is something that shouldn’t be there.
“So there’s still a lot of hands on.”
Patterson said, that while high school students can’t jump right in anymore, PPGH engages with MWHS by allowing students in a career class to come observe what the hospital does.
PPGH also works closely with Tarleton State University to allow its MLT and MT students to do their clinicals in the lab.
Patterson also stressed that this field is in need of more workers.
Beyond this field being a good job market, Patterson believes it is a good career choice because lab professionals have the opportunity to impact peoples’ lives.
“We may do the same thing every day but the circumstances of every day are different,” Patterson said. “We make an impact on the quality of our patients’ lives.
“What we do saves many of those lives. What better motivation is there than that?
“Our main focus is taking the very best care of our patients as we can. Whether they are outpatients here just to have lab work done, ER patients that are in dire straits, newborns that are in distress, inpatients that the physician needs a ‘progress’ report on or our elderly in a nursing home, we impact their lives in a big way.
“The results we give their doctor helps to determine the course of treatment for that patient. So, we have to get it right.
“In the 40 years I have been in the laboratory field I have never lost the desire to get up and do what I do… I love people and am surrounded by people that work with me in the laboratory who share the same feeling.
“We want to focus on each patient like they are our own family.
“In my opinion, we do a great job doing just that!”