Amid COVID-19 upheaval, DLMP staff steps up

When COVID-19 arrived in Minnesota in March, it brought with it a whirlwind of change. By the beginning of April, daily life had shifted dramatically at Mayo Clinic, and the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology (DLMP) was in the thick of the upheaval. New tests had to be developed, and some labs needed to ramp up testing immediately. At the same time, other areas were scaling back or shutting down due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Linda Spiten, a DLMP operations administrator, was hearing about it from all sides. "We knew our COVID laboratories needed extra staff. We were also getting inquiries from laboratories with people who wanted to keep working," Spiten says. "So we had a group saying, 'We need people' and a group saying, 'We don't want to send our people home. Tell us what we can do.'"

There was no predicting how it all would play out, but it was clear that flexibility would be key. In the end, more than 400 DLMP staffers shifted to different roles. Many others worked tirelessly in their home areas to keep essential functions going. Everyone required daily doses of creativity and perseverance. Here are a few of their stories.

A massive undertaking

When Spiten realized the scope of the redeployment necessary within DLMP, she knew she needed someone who could serve as a master communicator. She turned to Brittany Schuchard.

A DLMP program implementation coordinator with the WuXi joint venture, Schuchard was seeing a significant decrease in her usual projects due to COVID-19. Spiten was happy to fill the gap, asking Schuchard, along with two colleagues — Keri Doyle and Deb Wells — to coordinate the department's redeployment effort. It was no small task.

"Keri and I worked on building a base spreadsheet to figure out where everyone currently was and what their skillset was," Schuchard says. "Then we worked with Deb to make sure everyone was qualified and that they had the right training to go into the laboratories."

In all, the team found places for 423 people to meet staffing needs within the department. One of them was Schuchard herself. In addition to being a redeployment coordinator, she went to work in DLMP Central Processing. As someone who doesn't come from a laboratory background, the experience was eye-opening.

"It has given me a lot of additional insight, seeing the lab and getting some perspective on what Central Processing manages every day," Schuchard says. "It's unbelievable. For the amount of samples they handle, it's a very smooth process."

An opening to help out

For Ben Larson, that process was very familiar. A lab processing assistant in Central Processing since 2017, Ben was in the midst of considering new opportunities within DLMP when COVID-19 hit. "Central Processing was my first lab job, and I really liked it," he says. "I wanted to stay in the department, but I was interested in something different. I like to learn new things and keep things fresh."

A pandemic-triggered hiring freeze put his job search on hold. But then Ben heard about a need for volunteers to work in the Hepatitis/HIV Molecular Laboratory assisting with COVID-19 testing. He signed up and joined a crew processing the influx of samples the lab was receiving.

"It was kind of crazy. The size of the lab area just kept growing and growing," Larson says. "I thought it was cool, seeing all the COVID news and being able to say, 'I'm actually working in the lab that's doing the testing.' It's something I'll tell my kids and grandkids. When there was this huge pandemic, I was working at Mayo Clinic as one of the people on the frontlines."

Larson stayed on that frontline for two months. Afterward, he returned to Central Processing. In September, his interest in trying something new was fulfilled when he received a job offer in Mayo Clinic Laboratories Inquiry, where he now works as a client solutions tech coordinator.

In retrospect, Larson says he's grateful that he was in a position to help when the call for volunteers came. "No one wants to be in a pandemic scenario. But overall, I think it was a positive experience," he says. "Getting the perspective of working in that situation really was worthwhile."

A valuable point of view

In May, Lynn Loynes had his eye on a different kind of worthwhile work. Furloughed from his job in Strategy Management Services, Loynes had a stack of windows in his garage ready to be installed — part of his plan to spend the summer tackling home projects and doing some fishing.

That plan didn't last. In June, Loynes got an email telling him it was time to come back to work. He wouldn't be returning to his usual job, though. Loynes would be processing dried blood spot samples for COVID-19 antibody testing. He hired a contractor to finish the windows and headed to a lab on Hilton 3.

Although the lab job bore little resemblance to his typical work, Loynes says the experience dovetailed nicely with his role as a principal business analyst and Quality Academy faculty member who focuses on business processes, quality improvement, and system management. "Before furlough, I'd been working on product lifecycle management, examining how to accelerate test development," he says. "So I was curious to see how Mayo does new test development."

His stint in the lab gave Loynes an opportunity to see firsthand how that process works. "At Mayo, getting into the nuts and bolts of the work isn't something that's common for my role, so this was very useful," he says. "It's important from a process improvement standpoint to be able to go to gemba — the place where the people work — rather than making decisions solely from a conference room."

A voice of experience

Dustin Peskey's perspective also changed during his redeployment. Used to working night shifts in the Hematology Morphology Lab, Peskey went from concentrating on his microscope as a medical laboratory scientist to interacting with hundreds of people every day as a member of Mayo Clinic's security team.

An airman who served as a security member for six years with the U.S. Air Force, when Peskey heard that Mayo was looking for help with security in COVID-19 screening areas, he thought his background could be beneficial, and he volunteered.

"Every day was something different," he says. "There were a lot of really great experiences. You'd see people coming together in hard times. But there was some confrontation, too. Stress is high with everything going on, and that took its toll on some people. It was a good practice in patience for me."

When issues arose, the team would take time later to discuss them. "This was all uncharted territory for everyone. When something happened, we would often sit down afterward and talk about what we did and think of different approaches we could have taken," he says. "When it came to situations like that, I think my training in the Air Force really helped. I was glad I could use some of my experience to help others."

A testament to teamwork

For Cindy Schuh, redeployment didn't mean going somewhere else. It meant staying the course where she was. Together, Schuh and James Fangel supervise the FISH Lab in Genomics, where they manage a team of 100 people.

At the beginning of the year, the two supervisors had their sights set on the launch of a new software analysis system — one of the largest implementation projects the lab had seen in years. "We were in the homestretch of that huge project, and then COVID hit," Schuh says. "It was 2½ years of work leading up to the implementation in June, so COVID was not great timing for us, obviously."

Fangel was tapped to set up a new extraction work unit within the Virology Lab to help with COVID-19 testing — an initiative that quickly consumed most of his time. Seventeen other members of the FISH lab were redeployed to assist in the COVID-19 effort, too. That left the software implementation on Schuh's shoulders, but she wasn't on her own.

"We were able to move forward because of our wonderful team. Our assistant supervisors were amazing," Schuh says. "We would not have been able to get through this without them. There's no way."

Fangel, who kept in contact with Schuh as much as he could while getting the new work unit off the ground, agrees that teamwork was crucial. "The way people were willing to do whatever it took illustrated exactly what we want Mayo Clinic employees to do and to be. It may not always have been the best circumstances for everyone, but we got the work done."

In June, the FISH team successfully met their implementation date for the new analysis system, and all of the lab's staff members now are back from redeployments, including Fangel.

According to Linda Spiten, this level of dedication and flexibility was indicative of the effort staff exerted throughout DLMP during the summer tumult.

"We were definitely building the car as it was rolling down the street because so much was hitting us so fast. But our staff is resilient and gracious. Knowing we didn't have all the answers, but trusting, they took a leap of faith that we could work it out," she says. "Many people made many sacrifices to work nights and weekends. We had people in labs working for weeks on end training in new folks, so we could make sure we had people ready to go. It was incredible. We want to acknowledge everyone who worked so very hard."

Mayo Clinic’s joint venture with WuXi Diagnostics concluded in early February 2024.

Tracy Will

Tracy Will is a senior marketing specialist at Mayo Clinic Laboratories where she covers innovation, specialty testing, and advances in laboratory medicine. Tracy has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2016.