Behind the scenes: Staff members excel in fast-paced diagnostic laboratory

Diagnostic lab technicians at work

The diagnostic lab conducts more than 100,000 tests each year for veterinarians at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and other animal hospitals and clinics throughout the country, plus 4,000 tests each year for researchers on and off campus.

When a 15-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse named Coco came to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital last year, Dr. Katie Wilson knew the answer to her sudden lethargy was just down the hall. The horse’s North Carolina owners brought her in because of suspected bleeding, but Wilson, a clinical assistant professor of large animal medicine in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, suspected that a toxic substance was to blame.

Virginia Tech Animal Laboratory Services, a full-service veterinary diagnostic laboratory housed at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, had the answer. Wilted red maple leaves, if ingested, are poisonous to horses as they damage the horse’s red blood cells, resulting in severe anemia, possible kidney damage, and, in severe cases, death.

Identifying specific changes to the red blood cells in the horse is the key to the diagnosis, but requires a skilled set of eyes to review a blood smear from the patient. This is where laboratory professionals play an essential role in veterinary medicine, providing accurate results in a timely fashion. In this patient’s case, thanks to a correct and fast diagnosis, Wilson was able to successfully treat her and send her home in much better shape.

The diagnostic lab conducts more than 100,000 tests each year for veterinarians at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and other veterinary hospitals throughout the region. This month, the college is celebrating Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (April 20-26) to recognize the important role of the laboratory technologists and technicians performing these tests day in and day out.

Nationwide, there are more than 300,000 medical laboratory professionals who often work behind the scenes performing laboratory tests for both human and veterinary medicine. The teaching hospital laboratory employs 17 medical technologists and technicians, including Donna Burton, a medical technologist, who has worked at the diagnostic lab for more than 20 years.

Diagnostic lab staf

Virginia Tech Animal Laboratory Services has a team of 17 medical technologists and technicians, including student wage technicians. From left to right: Miriam Riquelme Andara, Andrea Kogut, Donna Burton, April Huffman, Judy Franklin, Jennifer Rudd, April Cullip, Sharon Hurt, and Kristin Sullivan.

“I worked at the Roanoke Health Department for 14 years before coming here,” said Burton, who added that the skills she learned as a medical technologist in human medicine transferred well into veterinary medicine. “I enjoy the diversity and the pace of the work every day.”

Dr. Nicole Weinstein, an assistant professor of clinical pathology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, explained that the diagnostic lab owes much of its success to the support and hard work of medical technologists like Burton. The laboratory staff prepares samples, maintains and operates the various analyzers, identifies infectious diseases, and manages the blood bank along with a variety of other responsibilities.

“The laboratory staff processes all of the samples before the pathologists review them,” said Weinstein, who is a board-certified pathologist and the diagnostic lab’s assistant director. “Our pathologists couldn’t do their job without them.”

According to Weinstein, the diagnostic lab analyzes a variety samples for a diverse range of clients. “We serve veterinarians in general, both small animal and large animal,” she said. “We work with samples from the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, veterinary practitioners in the region, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and researchers on campus. We serve distant researchers on other campuses and at other research facilities as well.”

In fact, the laboratory conducts about 4,000 tests each year for researchers on and off campus.

Jennifer Rudd, a histology technician, who processes tissues from biopsy and necropsy specimens, described this variety as one of the reasons she enjoys working at the lab. Rudd has been a histology technician for the past 13 years, including five years at the veterinary college. Although she pointed out that her “first love was always veterinary medicine,” she worked for research and human medicine labs before joining the veterinary diagnostic lab.

According to Rudd, histology is more of an art than a science. “We take wet tissue removed from the body and make a microscope slide out of it,” she said. “It is an art because it is hands-on and there is a lot of variability with tissue types from multiple species.”

“It requires a lot of patience to make a slide,” added Rudd, who recently completed a bachelor’s degree in agricultural sciences at Virginia Tech.

Microscopy image of blood smear

A blood smear used to diagnose Coco’s lethargy. The red arrows point to blister-like areas on the blood cells called eccentrocytes, and the black arrows point to dense areas of hemoglobin called Heinz bodies. These both indicate oxidative injury to red blood cells causing damage to the hemoglobin. In horses, ingesting wilted maple leaves is a common cause. The white arrows point to damaged red blood cells called ghost cells. The small, dark cells are eccentrocyte remnants, and the large, dark ones are normal red blood cells. The large, purple ones are white blood cells.

The histology laboratory processes between 60 and 80 slides a day and is part of the anatomic pathology service, one of seven service sections within the diagnostic laboratory. Each section — anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, blood bank, clinical microbiology, clinical immunology, clinical parasitology, and clinical toxicology — is under the direction of a board-certified specialist at the college who serves as chief of service. Dr. Tanya LeRoith, associate professor of anatomic pathology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, serves as the laboratory director, and Carolyn Sink, who worked for years in the clinical lab as a medical technologist, now serves as the supervisor of diagnostic and support services.

Weinstein explained that the diagnostic laboratory offers comparable testing options to a human clinical laboratory, but often with greater individual case supervision and faster turnaround time.

“All blood smears and urinalysis are reviewed by technologists after analysis by a special instrument, whereas in human medicine the samples are often only analyzed by machine,” she said. “Abnormalities are brought directly to the clinical pathologist on duty for further evaluation and characterization. This also occurs in other laboratory sections – questions about parasites, bacterial agents, or other abnormal test results – can be reviewed with the corresponding specialist for that section.”

Many of the samples, including all of them for patients at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, are tested the same day, often within a few hours. According to Weinstein, this fast turnaround is essential for a laboratory of this kind.

“Because we are involved in veterinary diagnostics, our patients can’t tell us what’s wrong with them,” she said. “Providing same-day results not only makes sure they get the care they need, but also saves on costs for our clients. We try to work as efficiently and accurately as possible while still getting the best answers for the animal in question.”

And Coco, the Tennessee Walker? According to owner Laken Reeves of Mt. Airy, N.C., she’s doing great and excitement is building as the mare is expecting her first colt soon.