Path lab boss reflects on 'extraordinary' 10 years at Cairns Hospital

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Mark Porton, is retiring after a decade in the job at Cairns Hospital.

Mark Porton, is retiring after a decade in the job at Cairns Hospital.

The past decade has been 'far from cruisey' for Cairns Hospital's pathology laboratory manager. He highlights some of the biggest challenges that his team has faced during this period.

It was early one night in mid-April 2020, when Mark Porton received a phone call from Cairns Hospital’s head doctor with an unprecedented request about the hospital’s pathology laboratory.

'We were told we needed to close the lab down – the whole thing – because we had a positive COVID-19 case among our staff,' Mark said.

'Twelve hours later, we managed to completely wind down all our operations to hand over to relieving teams on their way up north from Brisbane, and to our private partners QML.

'It was an extraordinary situation, considering the size of our operation.'

Mark is the Cairns Group Laboratory Manager for Pathology Queensland, responsible for overseeing more than 100 staff providing pathology services to not only Cairns Hospital but also Innisfail, Atherton and Thursday Island hospitals, covering the region from Tully to Saibi Island in the Torres Strait.

Set to retire next week, Mark has highlighted temporary closure of the lab due to COVID-19 as just one of many challenges the lab has navigated during the past decade.

'Between the implementation of integrated electronic medical records (ieMR), shifting the entire lab from Cairns Hospital’s Block C to Block E, and the COVID-19 pandemic, it has certainly been a hectic period'he said.

'We have certainly been one of the busiest pathology labs in Queensland, in terms of our COVID-19 swabbing tests and high positivity rate.'

Mark started his career as a Medical Laboratory Scientist in Alice Springs, working for Peverill’s Pathology before shifting to Whyalla, South Australia to work for IMVS (SA Pathology) in various roles, including regional manager of services.

After spending two decades working for SA Health, he said he then decided to head north to Cairns for a change of pace.

'When Cairns came up, I thought it was a great opportunity, and I’ve remained here for 10 years,' he said.

'Cairns is obviously a beautiful city, but I thought I would be in for a lovely, relaxing time in the tropics.

'It’s been far from cruisey, though, but I always love a good challenge!'

He said COVID-19 had been the greatest ongoing challenges for his team, but it has allowed him to 'get back on the bench and throw a gown on' – in order to help his staff process the thousands of samples that have been flowing through the lab’s very busy analysing machines.

But the efforts of the pathology team never cease to amaze Mark, who says “no matter the challenge and the resource constraints this group always get the work done.”

At the peak period for COVID-19 late last year, the lab was processing up to 1200 samples a day, which works out to roughly one test every minute.

'There’s been some great opportunities,' Mark said.

'Because of COVID, we’ve had an injection of resources, staff and state-of-the-art Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) equipment which has put us in a really good place for the future, not just for COVID-19 but other PCR requirements, should we experience future pandemics and associated surges.'

Mark and his wife Flordeliza are planning on travelling the world once he signs off from work, with the first stop being Spain.

He said he was looking forward to seeing places he had always dreamt about, but would miss the pathology lab, and its wonderful people.

'I have a great team, and I’ve always loved working with everyone across the Far North,' he said.

'I’ve worked at a lot of hospitals, but there’s such a can-do attitude with the people here, in Pathology and both the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service, and the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service.

'This is very much a product of regional work, because we’re so far away from regional centres.

'You have to be resourceful. For example, if equipment in your lab breaks down at the PA (Princess Alexandria) Hospital, if there was a breakdown, you’d just send stuff to the Royal Brisbane Hospital down the road.

'We don’t have that luxury here: we just need to make things work.'