My Robot Master

OK – so maybe not this many analyzers, but yes, this has become 40 hours a week of my life; starting last week. Which all things considered is a blessing, because with all the upheaval and pain and intolerance we’re spitting out here in the US, I’m stress baking, and that’s never a good sign.

During the attack on the Capitol, I found myself rocking, crying, and trying to hold myself tight. While I am deeply sorry for the loss of lives, I can’t be at peace with the sheer amount of disrespect and anarchy that was so gleefully documented by people who one might think know better. I don’t understand the need to deface, to destroy, to call oneself a “patriot” when you’re taking part in a riot that is in a direct confrontation with the Constitution. You don’t like what your (or any other representative) is doing – there are ways to let them know without defacing their homes. If there is so much anger in your mind, that you feel it is appropriate to harm others to prove your point you’ve lost your ability to reason, Isn’t reasoning one of the hallmarks of being a human?

When I was 7 or so, we lived in Virginia, and took a Girl Scout trip through the Capitol Building. The weight of the place was intense, not just the stone itself, but the history, the meaning, the power of a single branch of our Government in this space – I still marvel at it. Yes, I felt incredibly tiny there, but also very proud of my country. Or at least as much as my mind could handle politics at that time. To see people with no respect for any of that, who felt they had the right to throw trash and spray paint, take items as “trophies”… it just guts me.

Being back in a medical laboratory is… cozy. It’s home. There’s one analyzer that periodically makes a “WOW!” sound as it does something. It’s not what I attend to, so I’m a bit in the dark here as to what department it’s in or test it runs. This is by far, the largest laboratory I’ve ever set foot in, and I’ve done work in hospital labs. This is a reference lab, where a whole lot of specimens come to be tested in incredibly large batches to make sure that it’s done in a cost efficient way. I wish I could say I was doing something analytical, working with microscopes, and being a “real” technician. I’m not – I’m a contract hire, for the processing and set up of COVID samples. And before you ask, yes, there are times I am scared by the sheer number of tests that come in, and the potential for infection, but we follow Universal Precautions for a reason. Treat every specimen as if it were deadly.

I work an 8 hour shift, that oddly has no scheduled breaks or lunches. I have learned that the only way to get my full allotment of time is to take it in one chunk, instead of spreading it out over the day. It’s uncomfortable, but needs must. You may be curious as to how this day goes, and I’ll tell you what I can, without breaking any confidentiality, for the company or the patients. Aside from it being illegal, and a quick boot out the door, it’s tacky. You with me so far?

I walk in and put on my disposable lab coat (it only took a week to find out where they hide my size!) and gloves, and if needed, face shield. If I’m comparing samples to the manifest, there’s no need, because I’m not opening anything. I’m just ensuring that the names on both the manifest and the tubes match. Sometimes this may involves moving a bar code on the tube, trying to figure out what that squiggle really reads as (Is that an F of a J? ) and noting if there’s no name on the specimen. Everything must be in order. Pretty standard stuff. The use of the face shield or the hood comes when we start transferring measured amounts of specimen from the transport tube, which may have viral media or saline, in addition to the specimen) into other smaller tuber for the actual testing. Those Robot Overlords really like wee bitty and carefully measured amounts of material to investigate. Preferably without chunky bits, which block up everything and there are times that is wickedly hard to achieve. In short, I move or try to move, something that generally has mucus in it from tube A to tube B. It can get challenging, depending on the viscosity of the specimen.

Sadly we do use a lot of plastic – I understand the need for disposable pipettes, and such. I certainly wouldn’t want to try to wash out the tiny 1 ml cups! Still there’s a part of me that cringes with every pipette or tube that gets used.

Once the specimens are ready for analyzing, I take them to the appropriate place, along with the manifest. Back to the station I just left, clean it well with diluted bleach, and, depending on what else is needed, I may archive samples, so that if there is a question about a result, the specimen can be rerun; restock pipettes, take out the trash, including bio-hazard tubs, and wash the blasted racks and trays. My biggest grievance on the lattermost is the incredible 50% bleach and 50% water (on a good day) we use to sanitize things. I’ve gotten a chemical burn from that, decimated a pair of scrubs (something that has never happened before in my lab life) and looked into what the current guidelines are. I’m unsure as to why the dilution is so fierce here.

The people I work with, are almost all more educated than I am. This does worry me some, as I want to finish my degree and back in the thick of things. If someone who has a BS in Biology is working the same kind of gig I am, what does that say about my chances? I don’t know. Most of the people are fairly pleasant and helpful. Some are the “mean girl” sort, but that’s a given. There’s always one of them about. The company seems nice enough, I don’t stand all day, and it fills in a gap on my resume.

The main reason for returning to work is simple – we need the income. There will be no move to be near Mum if there isn’t a healthy bankroll somewhere. We need to eat. My husband has a few medical goodies he needs to deal with. I’ll do my best to be more of a partner in keeping things rolling. Still, there is the risk that I will lose benefits from being disabled – I don’t know if I’m going to spiral again. I hope not. If I do, then I do. Damn brain chemistry.

I’m sore, trying to pipette with good posture is making my shoulders grumpy. I’m tired, and a little overstimulated because not only is this the first time in ages I’ve been around people aside from family in rather close quarters, there’s also the extended amount of time being spent with them. There is some side talk, but most of us are fairly well focused on making the most accurate choices we can.

I don’t know if this will increase my chances of getting the vaccine. I highly doubt it, as I’m not a front facing “essential” worker, using the quotation marks to indicate that I can be replaced very easily by the temp agency. It’s not that big a deal – it will happen when it happens, and then I’ll have a sore arm. I still see myself as young and healthy enough not to be at the forefront of need. If my doctor disagrees with my assessment, we’ll talk it out.

I’m going to wind this up with a very blunt statement – the SARS-COVID 19 is a demon. We do see thousands of specimens daily, and we are far from the only place testing in our city. Don’t make it a joke, or strut your rule breaking self by not wearing a mask. Maybe you don’t have it, maybe you’re asymptomatic, but out of consideration for others, as well as your own well being – put that mask on, maintain social distancing and wash your hands! Put me out of work – because it is truly heartbreaking to see so many potentially ill, and definitely frightened people getting tested. There’s so much at stake, and the only way we can correct our course is to do the basic and smart things.

2 thoughts on “My Robot Master

  1. Thank you, Friend! Trust me when I say that I wear my mask(s) – I like to wear my own into work and then switch to the disposable, and then put my own mask on when I leave. I’m careful – I think I went through 5 disposable lab coats last week. But it feels darn good to be helping, in a small way, in this war with this terrible virus.


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