Tight-knit team works to protect community, one petri dish at a time

The staff in the King County Public Health Lab, tucked into the basement of Harborview’s West Clinic wing, literally hold people’s lives in their hands. In fact, at times they even hold entire cultures.

Working with the public and performing tests every day, the lab runs tests on tuberculosis to the flu virus and everything in between. Staff also coordinate with other public health clinics and offices, STD and TB clinics, law enforcement and even the Washington State Public Health Lab to ensure community health.

Senior Microbiologist Kristine Mejilla holding a petri dish being tested.

Senior Microbiologist Kristine Mejilla holding a petri dish being tested.

“We’re keeping the community safe, making sure it’s healthy, happy and thriving,” said Kristine Mejilla, Senior Microbiologist.

Kristine, who has only been with the lab four years and is one of five senior microbiologists, shares how with over 200 years of combined professional experience, staff work tirelessly to serve the community.

“We have a lot of knowledge here,” she said. “When people come here, they stay here. It’s a great group of people to work with.”

Kristine’s day involves preparing and testing samples, communicating and coordinating with clinics and constant problem solving. Besides ensuring samples are stored safely, she regularly deals with competing requests and the prioritization of tests.

“I work with so many different groups and types of people,” she explains. “I know I’m making a difference and helping the community because my job touches so many lives.”

“The work I do is for everyone. Our clinic is for everyone.”

Director Paul Swenson agrees that the commitment of lab employees to a healthy King County has made all the difference in running an efficient public health lab.

“Keeping track of operations, technology, testing and everyone’s workload can be challenging,” Paul said. “We have 11 dedicated staff though who have helped us complete upwards of 80,000 lab tests a year.”

Lab Assistant David Ewing organizing specimens.

Lab Assistant David Ewing organizing specimens.

One of these dedicated staff, Lab Assistant David Ewing, has been with the lab since 1978. He began his career when it was overseen by the City of Seattle before it merged with King County in 1985. While his role requires constant multi-tasking, he finds the variety exciting.

“I head to places with my lab cart to drop off or pick up specimens, and that takes me all over,” he said. “It’s really active and I like that because I’m not a good sitter.”

“I also monitor the equipment and make sure it’s all clean and ready for staff to use.”

In his 38 years at the lab, David has seen staff come and go, but has also witnessed the community evolve. He is proud to work in a facility that directly impacts people’s lives, especially the underserved.

“Here outside Harborview you see a lot of poverty and people suffering,” he said. “It’s great to be part of an organization making an attempt to save people who have fallen through the cracks.”

“Even when I see our mobile van out there providing services I think ‘Wow, this is really where the rubber meets the road.’”

The rubber meets the road everywhere inside the lab as well, highlighting the team’s interest in public service. From taped reminders to “Call Barb” to the huge stacks of files on Paul’s desk, the lab is a tightknit group who work together seamlessly to provide quick and efficient lab results.

“We are here to help maintain the public’s health by reducing the spread of communicable diseases,” Paul said.

Stopping outbreaks, handling viruses and testing samples while also coordinating with multiple agencies and organizations to ensure the health and safety of King County, Washington State and the surrounding communities is just all in a day’s work for this team. An extraordinary feat they recognize needs the input of all lab staff to truly be effective.

“This is a really good place with good people,” said David. “We have a multicultural group here, with people from different faiths, traditions and even diets who want to help people.”

“We want you to know your status, your body, your ailment,” said Kristine. “We are here for you, and to help you get tested.”

The King County Public Health Lab is located within Harborview Medical Center, which is also well-known for its status as the only designated trauma and burn center in Washington, its role in establishing Medic One first-emergency response and the impressive UW Center for AIDS research.

Visit the King County website for more information about the King County Public Health Lab.

In the first slideshow image appears the entire King County Public Health Lab team. Back row, from left to right: Senior Microbiologist Song Cho, Lab Director Dr. Paul Swenson, recently retired Lab Assistant Abebe Woldai, Administrative Assistant Sokkhanha Esteban, Senior Microbiologist Kristine Mejilla, Senior Administrative Specialist Robin Cowan and Senior Microbiologist Aza El-Sabaeny. Front row, from left to right: Senior Microbiologist Barbara Treen (seated), Lab Assistant David Ewing, Senior Microbiologist Justin Nguyen, Microbiologist Candice Le and Lab Manager Alfred Iqbal.

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