From Manual to Automated

By Lynn McCain | March 21

David Harro Headshot.pngAs the Department of Pathology prepares to bid him farewell as he transitions into retirement, David Harro, Special Chemistry Laboratory Supervisor, sat down with us to discuss his nearly 40 years in Pathology. Harro, who was born and raised in Illinois, pursued a bachelor’s degree in biology education and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Illinois prior to launching his high school teaching career. It did not take long before Harro realized that this was not the right career for him. He headed to his local library, in the days before personal computers and internet job searches, to investigate career options. He saw many job postings in newspapers for Medical Technologists – something he had never seen before. After investigating the role, he decided this could be a good fit for him. The University of Michigan offered a Laboratory Medical Technology Program in those days and Harro soon enrolled. “I expected that I would complete the training and return to Illinois. I never dreamed I would stay at Michigan for 40 years,” Harro recalled.

When Harro began in Pathology in 1984, the University Hospital was being built. The girders were up, but little else. “We were still in Old Main Hospital when I started. So I worked there, then we went through a major move to the University Hospital. In the last few years, we have had another set of major changes as the laboratories at University Hospital were being renovated.” Early in his career at Michigan, Harro met a lovely young woman named Chris, who coincidentally worked in the hematology laboratory at the University of Michigan. They later married and spent the next 35 years working together in the department. She is one of the factors that unexpectedly kept Harro in Michigan.

Over the past forty years, laboratory processes evolved and advanced at a rapid pace. “When I started, everything was done manually and on paper. We mixed the reagents and pipetted countless samples.” He remembers when the new hospital was built in 1986. It was touted as the most advanced healthcare center in the United States. “The hospital had robots that would bring supplies from the basement to different floors and make stops at locations on each floor. This was supposed to be the thing of the future. But we had a lot of problems with them and found that people could do the job much more efficiently. You can still see the robot tracks in the basement of the hospital.”

People were allowed to eat in the lab just a couple of years before I started and when I hired in in 1984 people could smoke in the laboratories. Then a new disease, AIDS, began to spread in the early 80's. There was no cure or effective treatment for AIDS at that time. "It scared the daylights out of us all." Harro recounted how this virus resulted in dramatic changes in the laboratory. “We stopped mouth pipetting. Smoking, beverages, and food were banned in the laboratories.”

Over the years, the changes continued and accelerated. In fact, this is one of the most challenging parts of the job for Harro. “A lot of things just became more and more automated and fewer and fewer processes were done manually. We are constantly changing what we are doing. You type up a procedure, get it in place and validated on the bench, and a year or two later, it is obsolete. You are constantly redoing the way we test for things.” These changes resulted in improved productivity and faster results for patients but were challenging for staff who needed to be retrained on new processes. “As a supervisor, I conducted the validation studies on the new methods and learned how to do it myself. Then I typed up the procedures and created a training checklist. One by one, I trained every single employee on the new methods. It is very challenging keeping up with this while maintaining other daily responsibilities.”

In addition to revising procedures for existing tests, there is a constant stream of new tests being developed which need to be evaluated to see if they are economically viable to bring in-house. “It is my responsibility to test the new tests, try them out and determine the per-test costs. I then report this to the formulary committee which decides on whether we will adopt the test in our laboratory.”

Harro recounted some of his most memorable moments through the years. “I recall the Ebola scare. I was part of the volunteers for the Ebola team to do lab testing on Ebola patients. We spent a lot of time learning how to gown up and gown down for a potentially very serious disease. Thank God we never received Ebola patients here.” He also recounted his role in setting up STAT labs in the Emergency Department as well as the operating rooms. “I trained hundreds and hundreds of nurses and anesthesia techs how to perform blood gases and hematology testing.” The one thing he is most proud of, however, was the role he played in a testing crisis. The company that sold the reagents for a test that detects low levels of hemoglobin in the serum suddenly stop selling the product. This is an essential test for patients on ECMO or LVAD and there were no other vendors selling this reagent. “I went to the medical library and found literature from the 1950’s and 1960’s from which I came up with a means to make these products. This enabled us to continue our testing and we were one of the very few laboratories that have that testing capability. This is an achievement I am proud of.”

As Harro approaches retirement, he is looking forward to having time to go back to wood carving. This is a hobby he enjoys but for which he has not had much time of late. He carves using pocket knives, chisels, and special wood carving tools. As a closet bird watcher, Harro finds that many of his carvings are of birds. In addition, he and Chris own property up north that he is looking forward to fixing up. “The property needs a lot of work and I just love to go out and tinker, fix things on the property, prune trees, repair the cabin. I just love being alone with my thoughts and being busy like that. I am as happy as a clam.” He is a skilled carpenter and enjoys generalized woodworking, making shelves, furniture, and other items. The laboratory has benefited over the years from these skills, with file holders, shelves, and other items to help on the bench.

Harro’s last day will be April 5th – be sure to stop by and wish him a happy retirement before he goes. Enjoy your retirement, David! It is well deserved.