By Holly Winslow, Newborn Screening Analyst 2, Newborn Screening Program, Minnesota Department of Health
I fell into lab work. What else is a fresh graduate holding a degree in biochemistry going to do? I signed up with the first lab to offer me a position. It happened to be a lab connected to a large, private, very prestigious hospital. The pay was more than a newly minted college grad could hope for and it could only do good things to be associated with this prestigious organization on my fairly empty resume. I had no dreams to change the world. I only knew that laboratory work fit my skill-set and my degree, so I was there to learn all there was to know about the real world.
I was introduced to and performed newborn screening in this private laboratory, but it wasn’t until I took a job at the public health lab that I fell in love with it. I save babies … every day. What more could a person ask for in terms of fulfillment in their career? The day to day routine of a public health laboratorian and a private hospital laboratorian are pretty similar. I test specimens using whatever assay I am assigned to that day. I review data and report normal, abnormal, and presumptive positive results based on my data. I take pride in the accuracy and efficiency of my work. This was the same at both the private and public health labs. So what made the difference between the private and public lab? Why did it take going to the public health lab for me to find my passion for newborn screening?
At the private lab, the focus was on the hospital. The specimens that we tested were not thought of as patients, and we didn’t consider the person behind the specimen. It was all about improving the testing we were doing in the lab. We wanted to be the best laboratory, which is not in itself a bad thing, as improving the laboratory improved the testing for the patients we served. But this approach didn’t foster an environment that was patient-centered. I felt like I was working for the lab, not working for the patient.
In an effort to try my hand outside of a laboratory, I tried working in corporate environmental health and safety. But I always felt the constraints of the company bottom line competing with the purpose of ensuring safety. My job was to create safety warnings for the company’s products through safety data sheets or product manuals. It sounded noble when I started the position. I would be ensuring that the products sold by the company were safe to be sold throughout the world. In reality, it was focused on following the regulations so that the product was in compliance, but not making it sound so scary that the consumer wouldn’t purchase the product. I was working for the company, not the consumer.
In the end, I came back to public health and newborn screening because we help everyone with no agenda and no bottom line. The Minnesota public health lab was where I learned to think about every specimen as a baby. The public health lab was where I found my passion for helping our most helpless citizens regardless of whether they could afford to be treated at a prestigious hospital or buy an expensive product. The public health lab was where I began to think of my work in the context of the community I lived in and what impact I could make on the health and wellness of my neighbors. The public health lab is where I came to believe enthusiastically and whole-heartedly in the mission of newborn screening – to improve lives of babies every day through one simple test. The public health lab is where I will stay because here I don’t work for the prestige or the profit. I work for the babies.
Holly, my daughter’s condition was first identified through MN’s newborn screening a few months before this article was published. You may very well have been the person who performed the assay that ensured she’d have a chance at a normal and healthy life. Thank you for all that you do.