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What it’s like … to identify cancer in a child’s blood sample

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This is part of a series about extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at health@globeandmail.com.

Serious blood diseases and disorders always seem to appear when you're working by yourself.

The very first time, I was working by myself and I got a case of leukemia in a child. I guess the patient showed up at the ER feeling unwell with some unexplained bruising and the doctor took a blood test. That came up to my division and I ran the tests and saw this really high blood-cell count. That's indicative of a leukemia process. So I was really the first person to detect leukemia in this poor child's blood.

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Your stomach just drops, your heart's beating in your chest, but you have to stay calm and collected enough so you can work efficiently and accurately because you want to make sure you confirm these values as soon as possible for the physician so they can act on it right away and start treating this patient.

You feel so invested in these patients, but it's a weird feeling because they usually don't have any idea who you are or what you do. They don't know you're working on their sample on their behalf.

We try to treat every sample like they come from a family member, but because we work behind closed doors, the general public usually has no idea what a medical laboratory technologist is. We get mistaken for nurses all the time when we're taking blood.

In my laboratory, we process several hundred tests a day. People often call the lab and ask about their results, but we have no idea because we get such a high volume. And, legally, we can't tell patients their values. The results should come from a physician because they can interpret them with the patients' health history. But it's awful when you know someone has cancer and you can't tell them.

Prince Edward Island is a fairly small place, so often you'll see names come through of people you know and see every day, but for confidentiality reasons, you can't say a thing.

My own husband had Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was diagnosed in 2006 and a lot of his blood work came through my division. It's hard to separate real life when that happens. Knowing his test results were two feet away, it was tempting to look. But because of our commitment to confidentiality, I knew it was none of my business. Even if you send your own blood work in, you really should not be looking at it. You should be discussing it with your physician.

I just keep reminding myself why I am in this job to begin with and I come back to the standards we set for ourselves as professionals. At the time, I was really worried about my husband. Thankfully, he recovered and has been healthy now for almost 10 years.

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It used to really bother me when I used to watch the TV show House and the doctors would be performing their own lab tests. They'd push a button and a lab report would print out. That used to drive me crazy because that's not real life, obviously. It's not that simple. There are critical members of the health-care team who do that job and care for the patients.

Carolyn McCarville is a medical laboratory technologist at the hematology lab at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown. She is also a member of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science.

As told to Wency Leung

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