Lois Regen has spent close to four decades at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s clinical immunogenetics lab. She’s the manager, making sure that blood or saliva samples are analyzed promptly to see if potential donors are good matches for patients in need of bone marrow or stem cell transplants.
So when the snow began to fall this month in Seattle, piling up in fluffy white mounds the likes of which this city hasn’t seen in more than 100 years, Regen wasn’t deterred. She set out from her home atop Capitol Hill — “a very high hill, almost like a ridge,” she says — armed with her hiking stick and Yaktrax, rubber and metal traction cleats, on her feet. “Once the snow starts, I pull out my equipment,” says Regen, whose commute on foot Monday night took 90 minutes, three times longer than it takes her without snow.
Regen and her colleagues who work in the immunogenetics lab don’t deal directly with patients. But patients are at the heart of their work, which involves HLA matching. HLA – human leukocyte antigens — are proteins that regulate the human immune system. There are 12 HLA alleles, a form of a gene, that should match up between donor and recipient; ideally, all 12 match. On Monday, as the city was smothered with snow, FedEx delivered samples from unrelated donors in Germany and Poland. The lab needed to process them, and Regen and her team were at work. “Even though we don’t meet patients face-to-face, we understand that patients need us,” says Regen
Behind-the-scenes lab work is hardly the only aspect of care that continues, rain or shine. SCCA doesn’t close due to bad weather, which is why Kerry McMillen, a registered dietitian who supervises medical nutrition therapy at SCCA, walked about six miles to work from her home in Ballard on Monday. She saw just two other walkers on the way. “We had tons of patients on the schedule that needed to be seen,” says McMillen.
Patients were also the motivation for Merisa Tordillos, an imaging nurse, who hopped on her bike (a single-speed model bought for $99 on Amazon) and cycled through the snow to work. “I’m never not here, no matter what,” says Tordillos, who texted her manager a photo of her on her bike, wearing ski goggles, with the caption: “Don’t worry. I’m coming!”
Making sure that patient care isn’t disrupted by the weather is the primary goal during storms. “Patients are our number one priority,” says Chris Juaton, who is overseeing housing for employees during the storm. “Cancer doesn’t take a vacation just because there’s snow and inclement weather.”
An operations team meets regularly, including over the weekend, to troubleshoot and ensure that employees can get to work and that sidewalks and parking lots remain clear of snow and ice. Over the past week, SCCA has arranged housing for more than 120 SCCA staff at three hotels near the clinic so that they could get to work. “This isn’t the first time that employees have stayed at hotels during bad weather but I think this is the most employees that have had to do this,” says Juaton, who maintains a master roster of which employee is staying at what hotel on an Excel sheet.
The hotels have been so crowded that employees have had to bunk up, with at least a dozen sleeping on rollaway beds. “We told everyone that this is a good opportunity to get to know someone new and learn what other departments are responsible for,” says Juaton. SCCA ordered pizza for lunch and the clinic’s Red Brick Bistro provided boxed dinners, adding to an atmosphere that felt rather festive. “It was kind of like a company BBQ except it was a snow day,” says Juaton. “For us, patient care is part of our culture.”