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Laboratory: heart of 20th MDG clinic

Photo of an Airman holding up a red blood plate used to grow bacteria

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Chris Savinon, 20th Medical Support Squadron lab technician, holds a blood plate in the medical clinic at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, Dec. 9, 2019. Purchased bacteria is grown on the plates then tested on machines to ensure they can identify the correct bacteria for quality control purposes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

Photo of two Airmen in lab coats facing away to look at a table with medical equipment

U.S. Air Force Airmen 1st Class Chris Savinon, left, and Chris Lawson, 20th Medical Support Squadron lab technicians, review blood plates in the medical clinic at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, Dec. 9, 2019. The plates contain different samples of bacteria that Airmen use to verify the accuracy of lab equipment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

Photo of Airman drawing blood in the medical clinic

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Chris Lawson, 20th Medical Support Squadron lab technician, draws an Airman’s blood in the medical clinic at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, Dec. 9, 2019. The lab’s technicians provide services such as patient specimen collection and analysis to help physicians reach a medical diagnosis. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

Photo of epithelial cells under a microscope

Epithelial cells are visible under a microscope in the medical clinic at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, Dec. 9, 2019. Lab technicians assigned to the 20th Medical Support Squadron evaluate a variety of samples under the microscope and use machine analysis to help physicians reach a medical diagnosis for their patients. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

Photo of an Airman preparing a slide by placing a drop of blood on it

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Chris Lawson, 20th Medical Support Squadron lab technician, places a drop of blood on a slide in the medical clinic at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, Dec. 9, 2019. Lawson allowed the slide to dry before staining with different colors to make components such as white and red blood cells stand out from each other. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. --

Tucked away in a corner of the medical clinic, Airmen donned in white lab coats scrutinize data smaller than the human eye can see – information trapped in vials of blood, cups of urine, swabs of skin and containers of other substances not often mentioned in polite conversation.

These laboratory technicians spend their days delving into scientific processes and analyzing hundreds of samples to generate results sometimes in as little as a few hours.

Making an error means potentially missing a diagnosis and jeopardizing a patient’s life.

“It’s a pretty important role,” said Airman 1st Class Chris Savinon, 20th Medical Support Squadron lab technician. “That’s why, in our job, we always have someone double check.”

The Airmen examine a variety of things from glucose and potassium levels, to the characteristics of blood cells and the presence of bacteria like E. coli.

“If a patient has strep throat, some sort of bacterial infection, a disease or whatever the case may be, the doctor will put in an order,” said Savinon. “We’ll test for whatever the doctor is looking for, anything that flags or anything he has a suspicion of. We’ll let the doctor know … and the doctor will treat the patient from the result provided by the lab.”

These laboratory evaluations produce approximately 70% of the information that physicians use to diagnose patients at the 20th Medical Group.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Airman 1st Class Chris Lawson, 20th MDSS lab technician. “Everything that your body filters out, you can literally test for.”

Lab technicians must finish more than two years of training between attending a technical school and completing career development courses at their first base. This training prepares Airmen to not only do sample analysis, but also for patient interaction.

“We’ll see anywhere from 75 to 100 (patients) a day,” said Lawson. “Since we’re a clinic, we don’t see as many patients as the big hospitals like Wilford Hall or San Antonio Military Medical Center, but it’s still really busy.”

The lab supports patient health and the mission of every military unit on base by ensuring Team Shaw service members are fit to deploy.

“I feel like our job is the most important job in the (clinic),” said Savignon. “The laboratory is the heart of everything, because doctors won’t be able to give results or actually diagnose patients if it wasn’t for us. We play a vital role.”