Medical technologist, lab manager, patient educator – and airport chauffeur.
After 22 years with the hospital, Dean Merkel, MT, answers to all those titles, and countless others. He oversees the BMT Apheresis Unit and Cell Processing Lab for The University of Kansas Cancer Center's Blood and Marrow Transplant program, which has nearly quadrupled in patient volume since mid-2007.
But airport chauffeur? "When a courier arrives – often from overseas – with a stem cell match from a donor for one of our patients, I go to meet the plane, rather than having them take a cab to get it to the hospital. I want to have that delivery in my hands to make sure nothing happens!" he chuckled. "I can get back here faster so we can get those stem cells to the patient who's waiting for them."
The BMT program has gone from 47 transplants in 2006 to an estimated 155 by the end of this year.
While most stem cell lab managers don't make midnight airport runs, Merkel believes going above and beyond for our patients is what sets the hospital's BMT lab apart.
"I've done peer inspections in some of the largest facilities in New York, Massachusetts and California, and they're all good," Merkel noted. "But what I think we do better is our overall education and support of our patients and their families. It's the time we take to answer all their questions and to make sure they are comfortable with the process."
"My role as manager is to create an environment in which patient care is No. 1," Merkel said. He describes the cell lab processing staff of three nurses and two other medical technologists as a close-knit family.
"It's not 'my job' or 'your job' – it's everyone's job. We're all really open to how things can be done better, to helping each other improve what we do for our patients."
The department's largest volume is photopheresis, a two- to four-hour procedure to treat BMT patients who have developed graft vs. host disease, as well as those with a specific type of lymphoma. The lab did 167 of these procedures in 2007 and will do 1,000 this year.
"These patients are with us for hours, and we can see the same patients for months and months," Merkel said. "I heard someone ask one of our nurses if she had a favorite patient. She said, 'Maybe. But I believe every patient feels like he or she is our favorite patient.' "