By Chris Lee, 16, Walnut HS
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Entering the medical field does not necessarily require straight A’s or long years of college. But most people have never heard of any medical job other than “doctor” or “nurse,” so it was interesting to find out about jobs in a hospital pathology laboratory.

Photo by Chris Lee, 16, Walnut HS

Though he never thought he would go into medicine when he was in high school, Jerry De La O became a junior pathologist’s assistant at the City of Hope hospital in Duarte after realizing that he did not want to be a banker or firefighter for the rest of his life. At 23 years old, he loves his current job and plans to finish his schooling and become a pathologist’s assistant in the next two years.

How were you introduced to the medical field?
I took an anatomy and ROP [Regional Occupational Program] class on becoming a medical assistant when I was at Duarte High School. I was training to become a medical assistant. I was never interested in medicine before, but I took the class for a girl I liked. I wasn’t a great student. Normal classes like English—I just couldn’t focus on them, they didn’t grab my attention, but my anatomy and ROP class came natural to me. The girl left the class, but I stayed.

What was your ROP class like?
I took the ROP class after school. We would get a lot of homework, and sometimes I would stay in the class until 10 or 10:30 p.m. But it was fun. I learned anatomy, how to take blood pressures, EKG [electrocardiogram, which measures the electrical activity of the heart], weight and shots. You had to really pay attention. We learned how to draw blood. You had to practice on each other, which was scary because everyone wanted to practice on me.

What did you do after high school?
It was the ROP class that helped me. You’re getting a foot in the door to see different areas of the medical field. Right after high school, I was able to get a job as a medical assistant for a general practitioner [which is a regular doctor] while some of my friends had to work at McDonald’s. The doctor taught me a lot and was helpful.

Did you know that you wanted a career in medicine for the rest of your life?
No, I wanted to do everything—everything seemed cool to me. I became a banker for Wells Fargo, but that was boring. After that I tried the fire department, but during those jobs I kept thinking about my ROP class and the time I worked as a medical assistant. Then I knew that a career in medicine was for me.

How did you become a junior pathologist’s assistant?
After quitting my past jobs, I became a lab assistant at the City of Hope hospital. I washed dishes, but I thought ‘Oh, OK, maybe there’ll be a way to find out more.’ Then one day, they were short-handed in the lab, and a pathologist’s assistant asked if I wanted to become a junior pathologist’s assistant if she trained me. I said sure.

What does a pathologist do?
The pathologist is the one who looks at the tissue from a patient and decides whether the tissue is cancerous or not. Before a surgeon can treat a cancer patient, he must know what kind of cancer is affecting the tissue, how far the cancer tissue is from other sections, and how serious it is.
    The diagnosis is made here, so without pathology you don’t know what you have, so it’s one of the main keys to medicine.

What do you do specifically?
I’m a junior pathologist’s assistant, so I help the senior pathologist’s assistant prepare specimens. I gross specimens [which means] I dissect them, put them into cassettes, preserve them in formalene or freeze them for the senior pathologist or for other labs. The team I work with is great. I really like what I do. I love coming to work. You always see something different every day.

What kind of specimens do you diagnose?

I diagnose all kinds of specimens. We get tuberculosis specimens, tissues from tumors, thyroids, arms, kidneys. Sometimes I do biopsies [preparation of tissue from live patients]. We get arms, legs that they bring in from surgery. Also autopsies, I’ve assisted in a few of those. [An autopsy is a surgical procedure after death which involves the examination of body tissues, often to determine cause of death.] That’s the best anatomy training you’ll ever get.

Why should teens consider this field?
It is a big field and there is a constant demand for pathologists. There is always a need for someone to decide if you have cancer or not. And they pay well; head pathologist’s assistants can make $100,000 a year.

Will you go to college?
I currently attend Citrus College while I work. I have to take a lot of courses in chemistry and biology, but I can finish college and get training here [at the City of Hope]. I plan to attend pathologist’s assistant school within two years at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

What do you recommend to high school students who don’t know what they want to do in the future?
Get your foot in the door, and you can open your options. Take ROP classes because they’ll show you different careers, and you can work right after high school. Find something that interests you. You can take ROP classes at other schools. Ask your counselor. Just ask.

What are you doing with the rest of your life?

The health care industry needs you! Health care offers a variety of jobs and careers, with great pay and flexible schedules. Whether you plan to start working right out of high school, or go to trade school, community college or a university, you can follow a path directly to a great future.

For more information, check out
Funded by a grant from The California Wellness Foundation.

Other stories by this author:

What’s for dinner? Chris taught his friends to cook at a fun cooking party. (Nov. – Dec. 2006)

Downloading dilemma. Chris says that record companies need to embrace digital music. (May – June 2006)