PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Laboratory tests are typically part of annual health exams for military and civilian personnel. Patients provide the necessary samples, then they are whisked away and results come back a few hours, days, or weeks later depending on the test. What happens to those samples between when they are given and results are received?
The 21st Medical Group laboratory staff on Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, are the behind-the-scenes people who process those samples and generate the results necessary to help keep Airmen in the best health possible.
“Our mission here at the 21st Medical Group Laboratory is to provide accurate and reliable results to support our active duty force for their readiness, in addition to ensuring that we provide the diagnostic tools that providers need to accurately treat and provide care for all the beneficiaries in the Colorado military healthcare system,” said Maj. Theresa Umipeg, 21st Medical Group Clinical Laboratory flight commander.
The lab sections include hematology, urinalysis and chemistry. Umipeg said they can do any testing needed, but can’t always process the results in-house since their service is limited to routine care. According to Umipeg, the lab averages about 3,000 outpatient visits and generates approximately 4,724 lab results per month. She said they process around 1,050 of the samples in house and send the remaining samples to military and civilian reference labs, both locally and out of state.
COVID testing has become an important part of the lab’s mission. Umipeg said the lab has sent out 1,384 samples so far.
“Once we receive a sample, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we transfer that nasal wash sample into the viral transport media and store it properly, package it properly, and ship it off to epidemiology lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio,” Umipeg said. “Once it comes back, we review all the results and verify them before the results go to the providers.”
Umipeg said positive cases must be reported immediately to the ordering providers and the medical group public health office. She said she’s proud of her team for how they’ve handled everything, especially when there was a national shortage of the viral transport media.
“My flight chief and staff got ahead of the game,” said Umipeg. “When all this started, they started ordering the viral transport media so we had sufficient supplies. In addition to that, we got the authorization to double and triple our supplies by splitting the media into three. “
Nine military members and two civilians make up the lab staff. One of those civilians is medical laboratory technician Corey Cavanaugh, the lead chemistry technician and point of care lead. She is a retired Air Force veteran who spent the first 13 years of her active duty career working as a lab tech. She has worked at the 21st MDG laboratory as a civilian for almost four years.
“I do everything from phlebotomy to shipping specimens to reading slides to analyzing urine to running the chemistry analyzer to training new personal and sharing my passion for lab,” said Cavanaugh.
Cavanaugh said her favorite part of the job is analyzing chemistry quality control, looking at shifts and trends, and then making recommendations to Umipeg to make the chemistry department the best it can be. She said customer service skills and a love of helping people are necessary for the lab tech field.
“Not only are you assisting patients and providing care when they enter your phlebotomy area, but that continues throughout the entire testing process their samples go through – anything from centrifugation to shipping the sample to a reference laboratory or running that sample in-house,” Cavanaugh said. “Being a lab tech is being behind the scenes and aiding doctors and nurses by providing reliable test results that help them diagnose and treat their patients.”
Cavanaugh has been recognized for her work through her selection as the 21st Medical Support Squadron Civilian Category I of the quarter and as the 21st MDSS Civilian Cat 1 of the Year for 2019. She said it’s important for Airmen coming into this career field to know and feel good about their place in the ‘big Air Force’.
“You play a vital role in keeping your fellow brothers and sisters healthy and ready to fight,” said Cavanaugh. “Learn from or shadow other Airmen in other Air force Specialty Codes and see what you’re really a part of and be proud of what you do every day.”
The best thing about the Peterson lab team, according to Cavanaugh, is the genuine camaraderie and friendship.
“I absolutely love my job here at the Peterson lab and being part of the 21st Medical Group team,” said Cavanaugh. “I am passionate about working for and with this amazing group. It is a joy to come to work and I feel fulfilled at the end of the day.”