Remember that scene from “I Love Lucy” when she and Ethel try to wrap all the chocolates coming off the conveyor belt?

Think of that image, but replace the candies with tubes of blood. And forget the part where the chocolates roll over each other and create a backlog because Lucy and Ethel can’t wrap, eat or pop them into their hats quickly enough.

On this machine’s modern adaptation of a conveyor belt, the tubes march smoothly along several tracks on their way to the proper destination. There, the samples they contain will be analyzed for their levels of potassium or phosphate, cholesterol or sugar.

Human hands load the vials into the system, known as VITROS Automation Solution, then robotic procedures take over. The bar code on the side of the tube is “married” to a base containing a radio frequency identification chip. The information on the bar code tells the base where to ship it: to a centrifuge unit, analyzer or even cold storage, where it will remain for up to seven days.

The new equipment, which costs $1.4 million, makes the lab at Mary Washington Hospital look like something out of a sci–fi movie rather than a black-and-white TV series. Still, it’s hard to think of anything resembling a conveyor belt without calling up the antics of Lucille Ball.

ALL ABOUT AUTOMATION

Mary Washington Healthcare leaders and its board of trustees recently got a tour of the new equipment in pathology and laboratory medicine.

When Cindy Huffman, laboratory administrative director, first proposed the new technology in 2007, the company Ortho Clinical Diagnostics offered a instrument called the “engine” that provided the desired automation.

As the years passed, and the equipment wasn’t purchased—because of other funding priorities—Huffman kept submitting the proposal. The department called its efforts “the little engine that could,” even after Ortho adopted a different name for its machine.

Before hospital officials got a look at the new system, and with giant scissors, cut a bright, red ribbon, Huffman showed off a custom-made cake featuring a little train that had chugged to the top of the mountain.

“It’s been a 10-year journey, and the engine is automation,” she said. “It does the work of many people.”

‘THE UNSUNG HEROES’

The 85 people who work in the hospital lab are among 250 people employed by Mary Washington Healthcare whose jobs involve drawing blood or determining what secrets are contained within its cells.

Blood chemistry tests provide general information about how the body is functioning and are used to screen for problems with the kidney or liver, heart or adrenal glands. Or, they help monitor the health of patients with high blood pressure or low levels of potassium.

Blood that’s drawn at the hospital or its outpatient sites, from Stafford to Bowling Green, ends up in the lab and in the hands of workers wearing white coats and plastic splash shields over their eyes.

“We’re always called the unsung heroes of the hospital because nobody knows where we are or what we do,” said Judy Pope, operations manager in the lab.

She and Karla Grebenstein, laboratory supervisor, led the effort to get the new equipment in place while still processing blood samples.

The lab never closes. It analyzes more than 1.8 million tests a year. Blood chemistry screening is the larger component with about 1.2 million tests, while blood hematology—which measures red and white cells and platelets—makes up the rest.

When the health-care system looked at ways to do more with less and the lab was charged with more productivity and efficiency, Huffman told hospital leaders the group could do it, “but we’re going to have to have automation.”

The lab reorganized in 2014 and trimmed its staff. When workers left or retired, their positions weren’t filled, and Huffman stressed that no one lost a job.

From the reorganization three years ago to when the new equipment went online, on Sept. 6, the lab still had to do all the manual procedures, but with a smaller staff. And workers had to get the new equipment calibrated and ready to use.

Huffman joked that Pope and Grebenstein were moving around the department so much, they needed roller skates.

Pope said she knows exactly what they should be for Halloween: “We’re the walking dead.”

‘ABSOLUTELY AMAZING’

The new equipment takes the manual steps out of the process. Workers don’t unload vials, move them from one analyzer to another or spend several minutes, searching through stored vials to find a particular sample when a doctor decides to order more tests for the patient.

“And doctors add on tests all day long,” Pope said.

After blood samples are analyzed as ordered, the remaining blood and tubes are put in a cold storage unit that can hold up to 17,000 tubes. They’re good for seven days, then the unit disposes of them.

“Mary Washington is the first lab in the United States to have this up and live,” Wendy Tiner, an Ortho manager, said about the cold-storage system that’s connected to the automated tracks and analyzers.

As members of the health-care system’s board of trustees watched the automated system move tubes of blood along its network of tracks, they agreed with Pope that it’s mesmerizing to watch.

“This is fascinating,” said Alda White, chairwoman of the board.

Jack Rowley and David Upshaw agreed, even as workers tried to explain the complicated processes involved.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Rowley said.

After blood samples are analyzed as ordered, the remaining blood and tubes are put in a cold storage unit that can hold up to 17,000 tubes. They’re good for seven days.

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Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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