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Behind the Scenes Heroes of Health Care

June 3, 2021

When Kathi Winker graduated from high school, she had no idea what she wanted to do. “I sat with this guidance counselor, and he looked at my scores and said, ‘You’re strong in English and science; I don’t know what we’re going to do with you.’ I looked at a long list of possible careers and saw ‘medical technologist’ listed. It was the longest word on the page, and I said that’s what I want to do.”

Kathi, in light blue scrubs and facemask, pictured in the lab

It turns out Kathi is not the only student who stumbled into the MLT program by accident – many BTC students would say the same thing. Now the practices, procedures, and training of students in the career is Kathi’s passion.

While people don’t see Medical Lab Techs working behind the scenes when they visit the doctor, they provide 70% of the diagnostic information physicians use to treat patients. They collect the samples and operate the analyzers ensuring that physicians get the best numbers. Many technicians start their career as generalists, where they provide all of the testing services. Then, they typically advance their skills by specializing in an area such as blood bank, hematology, virology, or phlebotomy. MLT graduates are in high demand, especially now.

“I think that we have an opportunity post-pandemic,” Kathi said, “to raise our hands and say, you know those millions of COVID tests, we did that. The COVID tents are collecting the tests, and we’re running the tests. So we are exposed to the virus regularly because we know that it’s helping people.”

Lab techs run tests but can also tell health care providers which tests to run. COVID is a perfect example of this. When is it appropriate to run an antigen test versus an antibody test? Does a saliva test work as effectively as a nasal swab? Technicians develop methodologies, test those methodologies, and then retest those methodologies to ensure that they’re working for the patients.

Kathi is thrilled that every MLT 2021 graduate already has a job in their chosen field. The job market is desperate for qualified technicians. The need, she said, “right now is critical. It became critical in the pandemic, like many healthcare careers. We are an aging workforce. Many people have worked in the lab between 30 and 40 years and are hoping to retire soon.”

Before joining the Blackhawk staff, Kathi worked at the Monroe Medical Foundation, where they coordinated clinical trials in global food quality assurance. She was able to work with a foreign company and educate them on quality and the best ways to perform testing on quality assets needed in their product. “I was able to experience a lot of laboratory environments until I decided I wanted to teach more, so I came to Blackhawk Tech.”

Along with Kathi, the MLT program has additional outstanding instructors, including Dan Harrigan and Kevin Holman. Dan is a molecular biologist and microbiology specialist who started his career in pharmaceutical research developing therapies for brain disorders. Kevin is a biochemist and lead lab manager for flex lab, who brings additional manufacturing focus to the program.

“We have phenomenal technical expertise at the Monroe campus for the MLT program,” Kathi noted. “You can’t say that in many colleges, quite honestly, especially in two-year technical colleges.”

Kathi recommends a chemistry and biology background for those interested in the program. But that is not a deal-breaker; Blackhawk knows how to grow students in those areas.

“We look at each student to see where their strengths are,” Kathi said. “We look at where they land in their admissions test scores and will help develop those skills; that’s our job. We get folks comfortable with chemistry if they’re more biology-minded and get folks comfortable with biology if they’re chemists. So that’s on us.”

Blackhawk has been doing hybrid courses for years. This wasn’t something that was put together during the pandemic; it was already there. Many classes are hybrid featuring an online portion and a hands-on laboratory portion. Over the past year, the MLT program has refined many simulation products knowing that being hands-on is an integral part of developing good technicians.

“When students come to the MLT program on the Monroe campus, they’re going to get their hands dirty,” Kathi explained. “You’re going to draw blood samples, get your hands into the analyzer, and you’re going to produce a test result.” 

The MLT program does not have a waitlist and has spots available for the fall cohort. With the great need for qualified technicians, now is the time to consider a career in this exciting field. Learn more at https://www.blackhawk.edu/Programs-Classes/Explore-Programs/Program-Detail/program/Medical-Laboratory-Technician.

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