The biggest little shop on base: Koritz Clinic lab technicians show why they’re big shots

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Devin Robinson
  • 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Anyone who has been assigned to Seymour Johnson very long knows a trip to the 4th Medical Group laboratory generally means that you have to get stuck with a needle. The entrance of the lab is quite unassuming; a small closet of a waiting area with only a few seats. Few people venture much further past this deceiving façade to explore the surprising maze of halls and rooms filled with sophisticated equipment that all but the most cutting edge medical facilities would be jealous of.

As I prepared for the interview my head was filled with the dark thoughts of laboratories from the classics of monster terror: the secret laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein or the macabre scientific haven of the duplicitous Dr. Jekyll.

My guide on this exploration was the NCO-in-charge of laboratory services, Tech. Sgt. Ronald Allen, a 19-year veteran of military laboratories Air Force wide.

"Most people probably take what we do here for granted," Sgt. Allen said, twisting a cup of coffee in his hand. "The common misconception about the lab is that we only deal with blood and urine."

In truth, the lab is utilized every week to test multiple biological fluids for a multitude of tests.

"If it's a fluid that comes out of the human body, we can test it," Sgt. Allen said. "We process more than 30,000 tests every month with only about a half-dozen personnel."

That number encompasses only the number of tests that are performed here at Seymour. "Only about 40 percent of the samples we retrieve end up being actually tested here. The rest have to be shipped to the larger military research hospitals like Brook Army Medical Center or Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio," Sgt. Allen said as he opened up a centrifuge showing a five to one ratio of tests to be shipped out that day. "With all the samples we ship out every day, the one Airman in the shipping section of the lab keeps pretty busy."

In the shipping room, a tiny closet filled with freezers and coolers and piled high with packaging materials, a lone Airman packs the day's samples in dry ice and prepares them for shipment. While this may not seem all that unusual, the shipping method may surprise you.

"We have a contract with FedEx and we ship all of our specimens through their standard carrier service," Sgt. Allen said.

We've seen how the process ends, let's now take a look at how things get started in the lab.

"When the doctor orders a test, the patient comes here and we draw a sample," Sgt. Allen said. "We can do complete urinalyses, support drug demand reduction and OSI, test for STDs as well as a variety of blood work."

The Air Force requires that the lab keep all samples, with the exception of urine, for seven days, in case a retest in called for.

For patients that have caught the sniffles, the lab has its own resident microbiologist.

"It is extremely rare for a lab this size to have a microbiological department with a dedicated microbiologist," Sgt. Allen said. "In the micro section, we take the samples from the blood and expose it to a number of medicines. Depending on how the bug responds, we can make a recommendation to the doctor."

This role as a micro-sleuth is not one the lab takes lightly, owing to the fact that the discoveries they make help patients get better quicker.

"If we make even the tiniest of mistakes in our processes, we can cause a doctor to misdiagnose a patient," Sgt. Allen said, his voice grave. "One or two microliters off, and the patient can die."

For laboratory technicians, precision is an important part of each day's work.
"Here at the lab, we spend approximately one third of our day cleaning, calibrating and recalibrating our equipment," Sgt. Allen said. "There is absolutely no room for error."

But what kind of Airman can work under this mandate of perfection?

"The best kind," Sgt. Allen said. "I have been in this career field for almost 20 years, and I have worked in shops three or more times this size, but I can safely say this is the most talented, self-sufficient and dedicated group of lab techs I have had the privilege of working with."