The year 2020 was the year of COVID-19. As the SARS-COV-2 virus spread across continents and claimed thousands of human lives each day, we found ourselves fighting an exhausting war against an unseen enemy. In this global pandemic, the "frontlines" were not manned by soldiers in uniforms. Rather, they were manned by healthcare workers who displayed exceptional heroism in these trying times.
The word "hero" is of Greek origin and has several definitions, including "a person who is admired for his/her achievements," "one who shows great courage," and "a principal actor in a dramatic event."1 Let us examine the heroic role of our medical laboratory scientists in our response to COVID-19.
At the beginning of 2020, most of us were unaware of the existence of SARS-COV-2, let alone how to detect it in our medical laboratories. Within a few weeks, American laboratories validated more than 100 unique tests for the detection of SARS-COV-2. Since March 2020, the United States has performed more than 355 million COVID-19 tests. People with different skill sets came together and achieved in weeks what otherwise would have taken years.
While this achievement is extraordinary, it is not unprecedented in our history. During World War II, the United States entered its largest mass mobilization of workforce and material. Automobile factories were rapidly re-deployed to manufacture tanks, aircraft, and war supplies. Within months, a mechanic fitting a steering wheel on an automobile assembled tanks, jeeps, and aircraft. Detroit’s automobile assembly lines earned the nickname the ‘Arsenal of Democracy.’2
Sixty years later, we witnessed our medical laboratory scientists roll up their sleeves and rapidly transform their laboratory sections to accommodate COVID-19 testing. Existing instruments had to be re-engineered, new instruments and methods had to be validated, and individuals learned new skills. It was not uncommon to see a hematology specialist work extra shifts on a COVID-19 testing bench. What used to take years was completed within weeks. As COVID-19 testing capacity expanded, hospitals and outpatients’ clinics could resume normal operations. None of this would have been possible without the agility, courage, and fortitude shown by our medical laboratory scientists.
You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength,” remarked Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor who reigned during the Antonine Plague. During COVID-19, medical laboratory scientists came under severe personal and professional stress3 and yet continued to work on the frontlines. The median age in this profession is in the mid-forties. Often known as the “sandwich generation,” this workforce is made up of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and friends who are responsible for the care of their children and their elderly parents.4 Other medical workers were celebrated by the lay media and lay public, the medical laboratory scientists quietly soldiered on. Each day, they served thousands who were anxiously waiting for COVID-19 results. Healthcare leaders are indebted to our medical laboratory scientists for staying true to their profession, keeping our laboratories running, and working around the clock each day.
“Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” was a quote used by Winston Churchill in 1940.5 It honored the Royal Air Force crews fighting the Battle of Britain, an aerial campaign that halted Hitler’s march across the English Channel. Between July and October of 1940, fewer than 3000 British airmen were the last barrier standing between Britain and her capitulation to Germany. Short on supplies, equipment, and workforce, these crews worked day and night to devise new ways to keep their aircraft airworthy and flying.5
Fast forward to 2020, we are fighting a global war on SARS-COV-2. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 170,000 individuals are employed as medical laboratory scientists in U.S. hospital laboratories, public health laboratories, and commercial laboratories.6 Without the work of these medical laboratory scientists, it would have been impossible to remove quarantine orders and bring back any semblance of normal life. Before the rollout of vaccines, our only defense was "flatten the curve" and "test and trace". Both relied on a robust COVID-19 testing system that worked on a 24/7 basis. Beyond viral testing, medical laboratory scientists helped diagnose liver dysfunction, cardiac damage, and marked inflammatory responses—hallmarks of COVID-19. The grit and innovation of a very small group of individuals helped us all reopen the major parts of our economy.
As laboratory medical directors and laboratory managers, we are highly appreciative of our medical laboratory scientists. Let us all remember that not all heroes wear capes and fly into the horizon; some wear laboratory coats. Henry Ford once remarked, “Vision without execution is just hallucination.” While the world locked down, medical laboratory scientists stepped forth to help create a vast and vital infrastructure for COVID-19 testing. To fully understand the significance of this infrastructure and the people who created it, we should revisit the annals of World War II, where we come across the allegorical cultural icon of Rosie the Riveter. Rosie represents the American women who toiled in numerous factories to supply much needed material and munitions during World War II. While none of these women received a battlefield medal, Rosie’s cultural legacy endures to this day because she manufactured everything that America needed during World War II, working with one rivet at a time. Today, in our laboratories, we have many unrecognized Rosies and Rogers, all working together to push back against the pandemic—one pipette or tube at a time. While many of them will go unrecognized, deep down we all know that there is no World War-COVID-19 without our medical laboratory scientists. We urge everyone to recognize this profession during Medical Laboratory Professional Week (April 18-24).