Saturday, January 24, 2015

How I got here...

Thank you all for your encouraging words and for your interest and questions. I will try to answer all of them over the next few days.  A couple of these questions are sort of tied together so I am going to try to answer them as one. 

From Michaele:  I"d like to know if you work or are retired and if you did or do have a job - what is it? You would have made a fantastic large animal vet.

From Rebecca2:  What "inspired" you to live on a farm in upstate, snowy New York?

From anonymous: How did you end up in New York doing the job you do?  Why do you stay?


How I wish I could retire.  However, I do work, in fact, I have been gainfully employed since I was eleven.  My single mother told me she would do what she could to support my horse obsession, but if I really wanted one, I had to come up with a way to pay the horse bills on my ownAnd I have.  I have always wholly supported my animals and I have supported myself and my animals entirely since I was sixteen.  

Ironically, my dream always was to be a vet, I think I would have been good at it too:).  However,  my mother was very suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer when I was a senior in high school.  At the time, we lived in northern California and I had plans to go to UC Davis.  She wanted to spend her last days lying on the beach, but her family wouldn't hear of it and bullied her into moving to New York for treatment at Roswell Cancer Institute.  They pushed her into it with threats to disown me and my two siblings.  We ended up selling everything and coming to New York.  She passed away nine months later and her funeral was the last time I ever saw or heard from my grandparents.   

The move to NY took my college plans with it as well.  In a last minute scurry, I ended up going through the Equine Science program at a NY state school with the goal of going to Cornell.  However, my own health also took a major hit at the time and I ended up having pneumonia 6 times in two years.  Not to mention being penniless and homeless.  When I met a guy who wanted to build a house and make a home, I gave in to the lure of stability and bad lungs and decided to try to finish my degree as an Earth Science major instead of vet school.  My lungs have never recovered from the damage they suffered and are not up to being in dusty barns all day long, which is why I finally gave up on the idea of vet school altogether. 

As for why I stay in NY....that is a question I struggle with all the time.  I never wanted to be here and still don't.  However, the very few people who really matter to me are here and aren't leaving so I stay.  I think of NY as a kind of black hole.  I came here under duress in 1990 and have never managed to escape its gravity well. 

Needing a better way to make a living than working in an animal shelter for minimum wage and in retail, I went back to school in 1999 for another AAS degree in Histotechnology.  And if you've never heard of this, don't feel bad, I hadn't either before stumbling on the program at a nearby college.  I finished my histology degree along with a Bachelors of Technology in Agricultural Science and went to work for a local hospital where I still am.

I work as a histotechnician in the histology lab.  It is the part of the pathology department that deals with tissue samples.  Every bit of tissue removed from the body during any kind of procedure, from biopsies to amputations, comes into this lab and is processed there. The primary function of a clinical lab is diagnostic.  For example, if you go into your doctor's office and have a skin lesion biopsied, that little bit of tissue goes to a histology lab where it undergoes a long series of procedures to preserve, stabilize, cut and stain the tissue so that it can be examined microscopically by a pathologist, who will make a diagnosis.  

Below are some photo-micrographs of the finished product that I stole off the web.  These are photos taken through a microscope of a piece of tissue mounted and stained on a glass slide.  The colors come from the staining procedures and are necessary in order to see the tissue structures.  The tissue would be nearly transparent without the stain. There are hundreds of different stains that can be done to show a variety of structural changes.  Every tissue gets a basic stain called H&E, which shows up as various shades of pink and purple.  The other stains are special ordered by the pathologists when they need to see different things.

To give you an idea of how this works, this first photo is of normal small intestine.  Those finger like projections are called villi.  They are where 90% of nutrient absorption takes place.
This second photo is also small intestine, but it has been damaged by celiac disease.  You can see that all those villi are gone, leaving the surface looking like it has been mowed down.  If celiac goes undiagnosed long enough, those villi may never grow back.

Some other things you might find interesting to see....

Transitional Bone - this is the end of a bone, near where it will meet the joint:

Osteon - these are the structural units of bone stained black using silver nitrate: 

 Colon - high magnification

colon - lower magnification

Liver with a special tri-colored stain

 Liver with basic stain at higher magnification

 Kidney - that circular structure is the glomerulus where all the work gets done.

Loose Connective tissue

Taste bud

Hair follicle with another tri-color special stain

I also do a great deal of very specialized staining called immunohistochemistry (or IHC).  The primary purpose of IHC is cancer diagnosis.  It is used to pinpoint exactly what kind of disease process is going on and in isolating the origin of tumor cells.  It works by detecting the presence or absence of specific antibodies in the tissue.  There are over a hundred of these stains that I do routinely.  Basically, if the persons body has a disease, it will make antibodies against it.  If those antibodies are there, they will stain brown while the blue is just background color.  Without background stain, the tissue is transparent and can't be seen well.  If the slide is negative, everything will be blue.  Just to confuse things though, many normal structures will show positive staining.  Like the above slides, it is up to the pathologist to interpret these.  That's why they get paid the big bucks, I just create them.



Histology is an ancient science.  We still routinely use staining procedures that were developed hundreds of years ago.  At the same time, the IHC stains are cutting edge technology that is evolving constantly.  The science of it all is fascinating.  The day-to-day routine...not so much.  It is very repetitive and requires almost no thought on my part anymore.  Much of what is done in the lab is now automated and a great deal of my job consists of babysitting and troubleshooting machines.  Lucky for them, I am very good at making things work.

This job requires extremely fine motor skills and strong attention to minute detail.  Each of these tissue sections are cut by hand using a machine called microtome which shaves off super thin slices of tissue that has been permanently embedded in wax.  It is a bit like shaving a candle with a super, super sharp razor.  Each section is 4-5 microns thick, which is about 1/10 the thickness of a piece of paper.  The goal is to get a tissue section that is just one cell layer thick so the true morphology can be seen.  There is a real art to it.

Unfortunately, like so many places, the lab is plagued with politics, back biting and toxic personalities.  I have very little patience for all of that and prefer to just go in and do my job, which is why I work by myself on an odd shift from 5:00pm to 1:00am.  The commute is a killer, especially in the winter as the small towns around here quit plowing the roads after dark.  The drive home can sure be interesting.  I am a die-hard believer in studded snow tires, never leave home without them. 


  1. I found this fascinating! Love the colors and designs in the slides.
    Office politics and back stabbing is so prevelant and no matter where I go, I seem to run into it.

    My folks told me when I was a child that I'd have to buy and support my first equine too. How interesting. Now here I am with equine and loving every moment spent with them.

    I am so grateful that my husband and I have discussed with our kids what our health plans are and how we want things handled.

    Thank you for this, now I can understand why you make references to disliking NY. As a young kid, we drove through up state NY on a road trip and of course I thought it was incredibly beautiful.

  2. I love hearing how people end up where they are. I'm sorry that NY doesn't feel like home for you even after all this time. It is a beautiful state. Of course, I live in NS so I'm biased about this side of the continent. I hope that you find where you want to be.

  3. Holy Moly, you've out done yourself once again. This posting is so very interesting. I'm gluten intolerant so the photos of the villi in the small intestine was very illuminating. No wonder you are so good at observing possible problems with your animals. I stay in a small desert town in the heat and dust for somewhat the same reasons -- this is where the people are that know and care about me. Families. They do stuff like this to one another on a regular basis. Hard to understand.

  4. Truly very interesting! I have not had time to blog - - just barely to read some of them. ( I watch our 2.5 years old grandson during the school year.) Long story short is your title captured my attention. I really liked hearing your story. Life has not been what you anticipated but you have done well with it. Thanks for the education on Histotechnology. You are probably the first person I know that does that. Although many of us know we have stuff sent to the lab, we never think any more about it. I like learning new things. It is too bad you didn't end up in a more moderate climate though - - - like us in TN. We have enough cold weather in our area to make it interesting but not too much to make it unbearable with frozen ground for months. Also other locales would probably be easier on your lungs - - - but it's expensive to relocate - - and as you said, the people you care about are where you are. Thanks again for sharing yourself.

  5. My goodness - that's VERY interesting! Thanks for all the detail. The slides appeal to my artist-eye, the stains are like watercolours. Be careful on those winter roads!

  6. Wow! That is so cool! Very interesting. And so different from farm life and donkey hooves :) Very very interesting. Thank you so much for letting us peek into your 'other life'.

  7. You have overcome real adversity - I really admire that! And what a fab description of your job, I use the results of histo at work and it is so important and a real 'art' and take patience in abundance. Strange how life takes you in directions you could never expect! Thanks for a fascinating post :-) Sending long eared waves across the ocean xx

  8. Fascinating and the slides do look like artwork!

  9. I love blogging. So many nice folks out there. I live in Boston where there's stuff going on, the winters aren't that bad and all the seasons are beautiful but I've never felt truly at home here. California is my soul home: if only I could afford to move back there.

  10. I think having toxic people in your life is a major problem, so in a way it is better not to have contact.

    Any idea why you got pneumonia 6 times?

    Thanks for the detail on your job. My sister is a nurse and she works weekend nights to keep out of the backstabbing crap.

    Sarah T

  11. I just found your blog recently and really appreciated what you shared in today's post. I am sorry for the difficult time you had as a young adult and for the loss of your mother at such a critical time . . . but am amazed to hear how you have persevered and moved beyond that time. What you shared about your job is fascinating and educational. Sorry the job is rote for you. You sound like a strong person in so many ways. Sorry for the long cold NY winters. I live in the mountains of northern NM and because of our altitude (7400) we get snow. But not like you get there I'm sure. Best to you. Becky

  12. Thanks for the peek into your younger years and work life. You obviously have a strong constitution and have persevered through some tough times. I can understand why you have stayed where you are because of the special people in your life there. I'm not the type of person who could totally strike out on my own to some strange new place and have no friends/family there. That's when I wish I was more of an extrovert and not the "shy" type. Maybe some day things will change and you'll get the opportunity to relocate somewhere more to your liking. In the meantime, keep your chin up and take care. Vicki ~

  13. Everywhere is plagued with politics - pays the same pays the same so stay out of em if you can and keep true to you. Meanwhile - basically you make pictures - cool ones at that. Almost better than art. So cool to read what you do for a profession!

  14. Oh my gosh. I knew you were smart and independent but never knew more of your story. No wonder you don't fear diving in to work with donkeys hooves. I spent many years working in labs. Chemical not medical. It's not for everyone. So glad I got out.

  15. I barely passed HS chemistry, so your line of work is way, WAY out of my comfort zone. It sounds interesting though!