Specialists like CHI Mercy Health’s Dr. Claire Stone can tell a whole lot about people’s health just by investigating a small sample of blood.
Story by Dick Baltus Photos by Samantha Starns
Dr. Claire Stone may spend the majority of her working hours with her eyes focused down the narrow cylinder of a microscope, but oh what a broad view of the human body that affords her.
As a pathologist and medical director of the laboratory at Mercy Medical Center, Stone’s primary job is to analyze blood and tissue to help diagnose or determine the cause of medical conditions. She works behind closed doors and rarely sees the patients who are the focus of her efforts. But that doesn’t make her work any less rewarding.
“It’s a cool job,” Stone says. “I’m doing essentially the same things most days, but it’s always different because no two people are alike.”
Stone grew up in the Chicago suburbs and trained at the University of Arizona. She was looking to get out of the desert and landed in Roseburg in 2011 because “It was green and wet. I like Roseburg. It has character and charm and good people.”
Unfortunately, good people still get sick. When they do, Stone often plays the role of chief detective, looking for clues that can lead to uncovering the source of their problems.
“There are a lot of sophisticated instruments and equipment in the lab that can provide very clear answers for us,” she says. “But we pathologists come into play when there is some sort of discrepancy or an unanswered question. Then it becomes like solving a mystery to me.”
LAB SPECIALISTS OFTEN PLAY CHIEF DETECTIVE, LOOKING FOR CLUES THAT CAN LEAD TO UNCOVERING THE SOURCE OF MEDICAL PROBLEMS.
So, what is Stone looking at when she studies a blood sample? It’s not just “blood,” per se. It’s red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets as well as thousands of other tiny molecules that can be examined, measured and analyzed by lab equipment.
“Sometimes people hear medical terms thrown around and don’t understand them,” Stone says. “But I think it’s useful for people to know about what some of the most common lab tests tell us.”
To that end, here’s some information about three common health conditions and what lab tests tell Stone and her team about them:
“As people consume more sugars and refined carbs, the pancreas releases more insulin,” Stone explains. “Insulin binds receptors on the cells’ surface, which allows glucose to enter the cells and supply the body with energy. A shortage of insulin causes blood sugar to rise.
“You have to balance out the supply and demand. You can decrease your body’s demand for insulin by eating more complex carbohydrates and whole foods. But if you are already diabetic, then you’re stuck either using medication or insulin.”
Blood tests enable Stone to determine a patient’s A1c score, which correlates to his or her average glucose level over the previous eight to 12 weeks. The test helps patients who already have diabetes manage their glucose levels if it rises above the optimal 7 percent. It also tells patients with A1c scores of 5.7-6.4 percent they are at risk for diabetes or considered “pre-diabetic” and they need to take steps to control their glucose levels in order to prevent long-term complications.
High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease (along with smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, diet and sedentary lifestyle), and cholesterol level tests are among the most common performed in a lab, Stone says.
While it is widely communicated that an ideal total cholesterol level is 200 or below, Stone says that number is less important than the ratio of “good” cholesterol to “bad,” or HDL (high-density lipoproteins) to LDL (low-density lipoproteins), respectively.
“Someone could have a high total cholesterol level and a high good cholesterol and that would be acceptable,” Stone says.
Triglycerides, a type of fat transported in the blood, are also commonly measured and high levels when fasting may indicate a metabolic abnormality.
Vitamin D Deficiency
You can’t live in Oregon without wondering if you are getting enough vitamin D. It’s good to wonder, since vitamin D is important in bone density.
Blood tests for those at high risk of vitamin D deficiency can help physicians recommend steps their patient should take to replenish the supply regularly.
“There are supplements you can take, of course, but vitamin D can be produced naturally just by being exposed to sunlight,” Stone says. “And it doesn’t take much exposure. Probably 15 minutes a day is all it takes.”
Stone says if people are unable to get outside, foods containing vitamin D or a supplement may be indicated.