Sarah Brotherton – Travel Medical Laboratory Scientist

My name is Sarah Brotherton MLS(ASCP)CM and I am a generalist travel Medical Laboratory Scientist currently working at a 10-bed critical access hospital above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. I graduated from the University of Alaska in 2012 and from Weber State University with a degree in Medical Laboratory Science in 2014. I have been working in clinical laboratories since 2013.

On any given day in the Arctic I perform testing in all departments of the laboratory: hematology, coagulation, chemistry, urinalysis, blood bank, and molecular. I have additional training to work the bench in microbiology, however, my current laboratory refers this testing out. To meet the changing needs of our facility, we are in the process of bringing it back and I am excited to be involved in microbiology testing again.

Part of being a traveler is being flexible to the needs of the laboratory, and administrative work is a big need in my current laboratory. On top of my normal bench duties, I also manage the inventory, work on digitizing procedures, and work with our IT department and reference laboratories to improve our reference testing processes. Inventory has been one of our biggest challenges at this facility since we are the northernmost laboratory in the US. All our supplies must come by air cargo, so a lot of time is spent on ensuring that we have the supplies on hand that we need and enough in reserve that we could miss a shipment or two and still be operational. I tell everyone that practicing laboratory medicine in the Arctic is not for the faint of heart! Additional challenges we face in this environment are a population with tremendous barriers to primary and mental health care (especially out in the villages), difficulty recruiting and retaining healthcare professionals to work in such a remote area and maintaining quality testing for specimens we receive from remote villages. It can take several days for specimens collected in our village health clinics to arrive to the laboratory by fixed wing plane, and a lot can happen to the specimens during that time. Balancing the needs of the patients to not be completely shut out of laboratory testing but also have those results be as high quality as possible is always our goal. We also struggle to reconcile the needs of tourism and travel to our economy and lifestyle while protecting our elderly and high-risk populations from COVID-19, in a community where vaccination rates are low, and the nearest ICU is over a thousand kilometers away by air.

The infrastructure built up to face these challenges is unlike any I have experienced in my travels. The hospital provides long term housing for all its clinical staff at a very subsidized rate. Shuttles ferry workers between the hospital, long term care, housing facilities, and the airport. The hospital and the Native organization that runs it coordinate a complex dance of healthcare professionals rotating in and out of the villages and off and on the North Slope. Rapid and PCR SARS-CoV2 testing is available for free to everyone every day at our walk-in testing center at the airport with rapid results returned within a few hours and is also required before any procedure, even a simple dental cleaning.

I have been a traveler for four years, and while this has been my most challenging contract, it has also been by far the most rewarding as I have truly fallen in love with this vibrant, welcoming, and diverse community. I grew up in Alaska and married into a large Alaska Native family. Even though I have been working in the lower 48 states for most of my career, my IT professional spouse and I have been so grateful for this chance to serve the Native Alaskan population. Prior to this contract I worked for a full year for a 175-bed hospital in southwestern Oregon, and I have also taken contracts in Washington, Arizona, and Utah. Most travel contracts, particularly in the Western US, are for small rural hospitals where aging populations and staffing shortages have created challenges to keep these labs functioning 24/7 with minimal automation. Travelers are a useful stopgap for laboratories affected by these issues, but are expensive and usually do not stay beyond their three month contract. I try to always be cognizant of the effort invested in my training and will usually stay a full year unless I am not needed any longer. Staying longer than a year presents residency and tax problems, but it is certainly very hard to leave after a full year! By the time I leave, most people have forgotten I was a traveler and are surprised to see me go.

Becoming a travel Medical Laboratory Scientist in the US is fairly easy. Agencies want you to have at least some laboratory experience already, as the amount of training you receive once on contract is minimal and applicants should feel comfortable working independently. Most laboratories are looking for professional certification. Certification from the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) is the gold standard, however, ASCPi certification is available for overseas graduates. Certification through American Medical Technologists (AMT) is another popular option. Travelers should be prepared to work generalist positions because specialist positions are uncommon, and should always remember that their job will often take them to laboratories that are not necessarily fully staffed or easy to work in. Flexibility and patience are vital to success as a traveler! If you have what it takes to be a traveler, you will be rewarded with the chance to fall in love over and over with places you’d never have known existed otherwise.