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Techs are critical component of
Mary Roberts must be perfect in her job as a histotechnologist. Like
her colleagues, she has only one chance to get it right—preparing
tissue samples harvested during surgery or an autopsy.
A pathologist relies on histo-technologists like Roberts whose
performance makes proper diagnosis possible, or helps determine whether
an organ is suitable for transplantation.
A 22-year veteran in the field, Roberts is among an elite group of
professionals who work anonymously in the precision-stressed field.
Julie Heape cuts thin slices of tissue from an autopsy as her
instructor Yuriko Bolig observes.
“The pressure is on the histology technologist. There is no margin for
error,” said Vinnie Della Speranza, manager of MUSC Anatomic Pathology
Services. “The tissues they get are irreplaceable, because they are
taken during surgery, and in many cases it involves cancer. It’s not
like a routine blood test sample that your doctor can order again.”
Jim Madory, DO, referred to the minuteness of the samples that
histologists must provide.
“Histotechnologists play a critical role in the diagnosis of pathologic
specimens,” said Madory, medical director of Laboratory Informatics.
“By taking the specimens from the formalin fixed cassettes and
carefully embedding them in paraffin wax, it is their challenge to make
sure that the three-dimensional piece of tissue in the cassette is
correctly represented on a glass slide. After the embedding process is
completed, careful sectioning of the paraffin-embedded blocks to
produce thin, clear sections, without wrinkles or tears is of critical
importance so that the pathologist can make accurate diagnoses.
“We are very fortunate at MUSC to have the staff we do in our histology
and immunochemistry laboratory. They are an excellent team and perform
very well, day in and day out, to get through the large number of
blocks that they must prepare and section every day,” Madory said.
But the pool of professionals needed to perform these tasks is
shrinking, Della Speranza said, and the demand for them at MUSC is so
high that many of the lab technologists are traveling, or contract
To address the shortage, Della Speranza in 2004 started a histology
program at MUSC, which is one of only three in the country. Students in
the post-baccalaureate program will pay $1,800 a year and study 9 a.m.
to 4 p.m. weekdays for a year. When they graduate in September, they
are eligible to sit for the national certification exam.
Of the 11 students trained at MUSC, only one has failed to obtain
certification. “That speaks to the quality of our program; and it
proves we are providing them with the right training,” said Della
Speranza, education coordinator for the program.
Once they are certified, their salary will range from almost $40,000 to
the $70,000 range when they become seasoned or attain managerial status.
This year’s class has two students, including Julie Heape, a California
native now living in Walterboro. She learns alongside seasoned
professionals in the labs slicing tissue, preparing samples in media
for further study. Her instructor is Yuriko Bolig, who graduated from
the program in 2005.
“We do a whole array of tissue cutting here. The histologists must do
their job perfectly,” Bolig said. “We do all MUSC’s autopsies as
well as all of the ones referred to us, including those from forensic
To highlight the field and stress the importance of technologists, MUSC
also is participating in the 33rd Annual National Medical Laboratory
Week, April 20-26.
Della Speranza, who is president of the National Society for
Histotechnology, said he is hopeful that MUSC can retain more of the
students it trains.
Meanwhile, MUSC’s medical technology labs rely on a joint venture with
the South Carolina Hospital Association and Armstrong Atlantic State
University in Georgia to fill widespread lab position openings. No
colleges in South Carolina have laboratory science programs.
Donna McClellan, director of laboratory services, has championed a
program that has both boosted technologist pay and retention
rates for those trained on the job at MUSC.
“We continue to collaborate with the VA and Trident regional hospitals
to provide the student labs with one of our staff as instructor,”
McClellan said. “Our hope is to expand the number of students we are
able to accommodate to three or four per year.”
Students in the lab sciences can qualify to have their tuition paid by
MUSC as long as they agree to work at MUSC for at least two years.
“These students are citizens of South Carolina, which will help with
retention,” McClellan said.
Della Speranza said that he is working on a plan to retain more of
MUSC’s histotechnology graduates.
Friday, April 18, 2008
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