Eight Bismarck State College students are getting the educational opportunity of a lifetime -- and they'll save lives in the process.
Students enrolled in the medical laboratory technician program at BSC will soon help the North Dakota Department of Health prepare COVID-19 testing kits at the state public health lab in Bismarck.
“Our students want to help,” said Mari Volk, medical laboratory technician program director at BSC. "They have been bothering me since the whole entire thing started -- 'How can we help? I want to help. I want to be part of this.'"
The story began when Dr. Christie Massen, microbiology director and head of the state public health lab in Bismarck, reached out to Volk to see whether BSC lab students would be available to help get test kits ready.
Massen, who was unavailable for comment in time for this story's publication, is a former adjunct instructor for the lab tech program at BSC and is a friend of Volk's.
“She asked if my students could help, and we got a team together to figure out how our students could help and how they could also use it towards their education," Volk said.
A one-year affiliation agreement was quickly drawn up and, pending successful background checks, the students will get a chance to gain valuable experience and get the specimen processing part of their internship done early -- all while helping free up critical health workers at the state lab for other tasks such as contact tracing as the state fights to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Medical laboratory technicians perform laboratory tests that help doctors diagnose and treat diseases. Volk likens lab technicians to "private investigators" who help the doctor determine what's wrong with a patient. She estimates 70% to 80% of medical files are lab results, highlighting the importance of lab technicians.
North Dakota is one of a few states that require a license to do laboratory testing, but preparing test kits doesn't require a license.
"Even though they're not licensed and can't perform the actual testing, they can help get those kits together," Volk said.
Each test kit contains a swab that is put into a sealed container called "viral media" after a sample is collected from a patient's nose or throat. The viral media protects the integrity of the sample until it can get the state lab so the test produces accurate results.
Volk, who herself went through the program and graduated from BSC in 2005, said there was already a need for medical laboratory technicians in the North Dakota before the coronavirus arrived. The pandemic caused the public to become aware that there are actual people performing lab tests, and she hopes that will spark interest in the field.
BSC typically sends its lab students to local hospitals for their clinicals, where they perform routine testing. Volk hopes that by getting students into the state lab early in their academic careers, they will get excited and help prevent staffing issues at specialty labs in the future.
"I think after this pandemic, the need for lab techs will be even greater," she said.
Reach Bilal Suleiman at 701-250-8261 or Bilal.Suleiman@bismarcktribune.com
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