Barton gears up for National Lab Week |

Barton gears up for National Lab Week

Gregory Crofton
Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune Paul Cuthbertson, a lab technician at Barton Memorial Hospital, draws blood for testing.

Phlebotomy, the practice of bloodletting for medical purposes, has been around at least since the time of the ancient philosopher Plato.

“Plato observed three layers in blood,” said Bob Johnson, manager of Barton Memorial Hospital Laboratory. “Red blood cells, a white fluffy layer of white blood cells and platelets, and a fluid layer, the serum.”

If the red layer was too small, it meant Plato’s patient was anemic, or lacked vitality. If the white layer was too small, it meant there was an infection. If the serum layer was amber colored, it meant liver infection.

Phlebotomy has come a long way in the last 2,400 years. The Tahoe Daily Tribune on Monday got a tour of Barton’s laboratory to help promote National Laboratory Week, April 18-24.

The lab sits in tight quarters in the heart of Barton. As many as 12 employees scurried around relying on state-of-the art equipment and vials of blood to get their job done.

“Such a little amount of blood can tell so much,” said Paul Cuthbertson, a 9-year lab technician at Barton.

Tens of thousands of laboratory tests can be ordered. They detect a range of things from the presence of prostate cancer to the right amount of aspirin someone should take to reduce the chance of a heart attack.

Experts estimate that up to 80 percent of health care decisions are based on laboratory test results. Increasingly there is a trend in the United States for patients to order their own tests.

Such direct-access testing is available on a limited basis in California, in part because the results can be difficult to interpret.

“I don’t know if we could function without the laboratory,” said Dr. Paul Rork, who works at Stateline. “I may see a patient think it’s ‘X’ and the lab comes back and verifies my suspicion of ‘X’ or indicates that it could be ‘Y’ or ‘Z.’ “

Test results that used to take at least a day to produce can now be ready in about 20 minutes.

“Sometimes you feel like a short order cook,” Johnson said. “We’re there to help the physician get that person well as soon as possible.”

Laboratory results today are also more accurate than they were 30 years ago. They hit the mark up to 97.5 percent of the time instead of being correct only 70 percent of the time.

Johnson is the one who does a final quality check on each lab report. Some days he looks at 100, other days it’s 500. In March, Barton processed 9,000 lab orders.

“There is a patient on the receiving end of everything we do,” Johnson said. “It’s our job to make sure the test result is the best information we can produce.”

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at

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