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Again, I never said I was smart

Did I ever tell you that I was 16 years old when I started college? Well, I was, but it wasn’t because I was some sort of gifted and talented kid. See, my birthday fell on January, and, while the school authorities wanted to hold me back and have me start first grade when I was six and a half, mom had me start elementary when I was five and a half. Later, when I was in high school, we — mom and I — agreed that I should try and graduate a year early and get on with it. So I did.

This combination of things had me in college at 16. It wasn’t a big deal for me, though. I just went to classes and did my thing. The only thing that I do regret, however, is being so distracted by a teenage mind when a mind that was perhaps a little more mature would have helped. If I had not left so many things get in the way of assignments and readings, I might have gotten a better GPA. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s all been done.

C’est la vie, so to speak.

I started the professional part of the 4-year degree when I was 19. It required me to do clinical rotations at several hospitals in El Paso. So I ended up at a blood bank, doing my blood banking rotation, while still pretty immature… It had not yet developed the skills to think things through well enough to choose the right course of action. While I could see all the possible moves on the chessboard, I kept making the wrong choice because of immaturity.

One morning, while all alone in the blood bank, I got a call from the operating room upstairs. The person on the other side of the phone was a frantic nurse. She said that the patient in surgery needed ten units of fresh frozen plasma immediately. I couldn’t tell her that I was just a student because she wouldn’t let me. So I hung up the phone and looked around, wondering what to do.

The best option would have been to go grab one of the other techs in one of the other areas of the lab. All techs are cross-trained to do each other’s jobs in case of an emergency. Someone dying in the OR certainly qualifies as an emergency.

The second option would have been to go find the blood bank tech. He had gone upstairs to draw blood from someone. It would have taken me some time to get it done, but it would have had someone who knew better than I did on what to do back in the blood bank and in control.

The worst option was what I ended up doing… Of course it was. Otherwise, this blog post wouldn’t exist.

I had seen the procedure for thawing plasma a couple of times. It was not rocket science, which was great because I am  not a rocket scientist. You just take the units out of the freezer and into a warm water bath. Twenty minutes later, the plasma thaws out completely and is ready to be infused. The problem for me was that they needed ten units, and the thawer could only do six at a time.

How could I thaw the other four in the same time, or faster?

To be absolutely honest, I have no clue on how I reached the conclusion to do what I did. What did I do? I decided to put the units of plasma in the break room’s microwave oven.

Yeah, it wasn’t my brightest idea. As it turns out, not only does plasma boil inside the bag pretty fast, the bag also bursts open. To make matters worse, plasma cooks like egg whites.


Add some bacon to that plasma and enjoy… If you’re a cannibal.

Upon smelling something horrible coming out of the break room, one of the other techs walked in to see the horror that I had created. She asked me what I did, and, when I told her what I had done, she looked like she wanted to throw up. Because that’s another thing about cooked plasma… It smells horrible. The smell is only comparable to burnt flesh. It’s not a good smell.

The lab manager took me into his office and asked me what I was thinking when I did what I did. I told him that I didn’t know. And it was true. I didn’t really know because, at 19, the developing human male brain does things that are just unexplainable. When a kid breaks a window by shooting at it with a BB gun, he doesn’t know why he did it. He just knows that it was something to be done. Likewise, I just knew that microwaves heat things up quickly and that the plasma was needed upstairs quickly.

The procedure that I should have followed is to toss two or three units into the thawer, wait the 20 minutes, and then toss another set of units into the thawer once the first units went upstairs to the operating room. If the OR really needed that many units that fast, then they would have ordered blood as well. What happened was a rookie OR nurse calling a lab tech in training who was a teenager. That made for a bloody mess in the break room (no pun intended).

Of course, the microwave was a complete loss. I went to Wal-Mart and bought them a new one with my own money, which was a big expense to me in those days. But I learned the lesson very, very well. In the years after I became a professional laboratory tech, I was able to handle high pressure situations because that mornign taught me that hurrying up and doing things only ends in disaster when it comes to laboratory medicine. (I figure it’s the same in other medical professions.)

So there you have it. I’ve never claimed to be smart. And this is not the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. But it did help me learn, and it helped that not-quite-ripe-yet brain grow a little bit. (I’m sure you’ve done something just as dumb.)

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

1 reply

  1. This really got me laughing. Thank you for sharing. (At least you messed up trying to be helpful!)

    You are right, though. Looking back at how I was at that age, I don’t even recognize myself, and if nothing else, some of the dumbest mistakes I can think of are filed away as personal cautionary tales. Nineteen is a strange time.


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