28 Dec 2020
Working in the High Containment Laboratory
By Dr Leon Caly, Safety Officer in The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory.
The phone rings and the person on the end of the line is a clinician, saying they have a returned traveller in the clinic from Sierra Leone with suspected viral haemorrhagic fever and the samples are on the way over to us. It’s not as dramatic as you see in the movies but suddenly, we have to stir into action.
It takes us about 60 minutes to get ready. The first thing we have to do is pre-entry checks; it’s similar to an airline pilot before they do the pre-boarding – we have to ensure that everything that supports us is functional so we’re safe. For example, we check that the laboratory is under negative pressure, ensuring air only flows inwards. We check the breathing air compressors are running, that there’s air in the tanks, and back-ups. We do a visual check of the lab to make sure everything we need is there as once we are in it is a lengthy process to get out again. We check the chemical shower to make sure there’s enough disinfectant for when we shower out in our suits. Finally, we check that the liquid waste system is ready to accept waste.
Next, it’s time to suit up. They’re really heavy, so they’re hard to handle until you’re connected to the breathing air. Once connected, the suits inflate and they essentially self-support, and then you’re weightless. It’s surreal, euphoric, like when you are under water; it’s like a different world.
When you’re inside the lab working, the passage of time seems to speed up. You might be in there for four hours, but it only feels like an hour and a half. It’s because you’re so focussed on what you’re doing and your mind is constantly engaged. You don’t even think about the high threat pathogens you’re working with. We do so much training that it becomes second nature.
But what we do get nervous about are bathroom breaks, so we try not to drink too much coffee.
As the only high containment laboratory for human diagnostics in Australia, working in this environment is a highly rewarding experience.
This article was first published in the Celebrating Five Years of the Doherty Institute Impact Report.