When I was in elementary school, I remember classmates circulating a story about a man who had gone in for surgery, and when he woke up he was missing a leg. Depending on the person telling the story, he either lost both legs, or an arm and a leg, or both legs and both arms. I’m pretty sure that at some point, in some telling of the tale, he woke up as the Headless Horseman (and was probably missing all his limbs as well). I learned two things from this, A. Kid’s imaginations are kind of a gruesome playground, and, B. Don’t have surgery, because the doctor will mix you up with another patient and you WILL die (sans all limbs).
When I was in vet tech school, I remember sitting in surgical procedures class, and having a teacher tell us that it was super important to count all your gauze pads-and anything else that came into contact with the patient-before the patient got stitched up, because you didn’t want Fluffy coming back in for having a sponge left inside her accidentally (and having a severe infection from the foreign body).
You always hear stories like this, and I think on some level I didn’t quite believe them until a few years ago when my grampa was staying at a rehab center after surgery. Two days before he was due to be released, the nurse gave him another patient’s meds. Turned out that the other patient was taking high levels of morphine. I’ve always hoped no one got my grampa’s meds, because he was taking large quantities of Coumadin (a blood thinner, for those who aren’t familiar with it). Grampa ended up back in the hospital for a few days, and his release date got pushed back another week.
All of these things were enough to make me a little nervous about healthcare, but it wasn’t until I started working at the lab that I truly got scared of healthcare.
Now, let me just point out that there are absolutely amazing and fantastic nurses and doctors out there. My goal here is not to bash, or cast out a net and say, “All healthcare professionals are this way.” There are people who truly know what they’re doing and do an excellent job at it. However, in the last year and a half, I’ve started to wonder how many of them there actually are.
I really love my job. The work is interesting, and I’ve learned far more in the last year and a half than I ever learned in school. I work in a medical reference lab. We’re responsible for running tests that doctor’s offices and hospitals can’t run in-house. I don’t personally perform any of the testing (I’d need a medical lab tech degree for that, and all I have is my vet tech degree and training as a phlebotomist), but I work in the processing department. Instead of a long drawn out explanation, just think of it as a combination of quality assurance and client care. I seem to spend a fair amount of time on the phone with clients, and for every call that is smooth and easy to work through, there seem to be about twenty that make you wish you were having a root canal instead.
For example, recently, I had to call a stat result to a doctor. Not only did this doctor have zero people skills, but when I told him what I was calling about, what the test was, and what the result of the test was along with the normal reference ranges, he said, “I don’t understand what that means.” It was all I could do not to reply, “You ordered this test! This is your patient! What do you mean you don’t understand?!” Fortunately, it wasn’t a very unusual test, and after about five minutes I was able to explain it well enough to him that he seemed to have grasped whatever it was he didn’t understand. I hung up the phone and just sat there feeling pity for his patients.
The thing is, those kinds of calls are not out of the norm. A few weeks ago, one of my co-workers had to call a nurse because a specimen was received that had to be protected from light and frozen within 30 minutes of collection. The specimen arrived frozen, but unprotected from light. The nurse didn’t understand the problem, because she had gotten the specimen in the freezer in the 30 minutes. My co-worker then had to explain that the specimen also needed to either be wrapped in tin foil (not only does it protect the specimen from light, but it protects it from aliens as well), or put into an amber colored tube.
It scares me when things aren’t labeled, or they’re mislabeled. It scares me when a medical professional doesn’t know that you use a lavender tube to collect a CBC, instead of a serum tube. It scares me when they don’t know the difference between serum and plasma. It scares me when they don’t know how to operate a centrifuge. It scares me when I have to explain something basic to someone who supposedly has more education than I do. It scares me when people are more interested in discussing their horoscopes, than they are in doing their job correctly. I don’t care if you’re a Cancer, I care about making sure that the guy with cancer gets prompt and accurate treatment.
I know that mistakes happen. I know that doctors and nurses are only human. Sometimes, though, I have to wonder why some of them decided to work in healthcare. Must be the great hours and the glamorous uniforms.