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Lab tech from Philippines joins hospital staff

Florante Catayas started work at CHI St. Joseph's Health in Park Rapids in October 2021.

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Florante Catayas stands by a hematology analyzer in the laboratory at CHI St. Joseph's Health, a machine that does automated cell counts of blood and body fluids. Catayas moved from the Philippines last October to work as a medical tech at the hospital in Park Rapids.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise
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When CHI St. Joseph’s Health had trouble filling a position in its medical lab last year, the hospital widened its search. As a result, a lab tech from the Philippines arrived in October 2021 to take the job.

Florante Catayas is from the central part of the Philippines, the province and island of Bohol. He studied in nearby Cebu, but after five years of lab work in the Philippines, he decided to look for work farther from home.

In a recent interview, Catayas said he is grateful the hospital hired him. “I have a great supervisor, and all my colleagues accepted me,” he said. “Before, I worried about how are they going to receive me, because I’m not from here. But, so far, they’ve been great to me.”

As a medical lab technician, Catayas runs tests on biological samples like urine and blood.

“The statistic out there is that about two-thirds of medical decisions are based on laboratory results,” said lab manager Darcy Fjosne. “So, we play a pretty big role in health care.”

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Catayas said the types of test he runs most often include complete blood counts, blood chemistry tests, urine tests and a lot of COVID-19 tests.

“Our hospital is not unique,” said Fjosne. “There’s just, in general, a lab professional shortage out there. The schools just aren’t putting enough new techs out to replace those that are leaving the workforce, whether it be because of retirement or, now, because of the pandemic.”

She said the situation is the same for lab workers as for the nursing profession. “We’ve had postings for lab techs open for quite some time, but we never got American applicants. We were seeing a lot of those for the Philippines. So, we saw that as a sign.”

Going the extra mile

Minnesota requires lab techs to test for a certification, Fjosne said, but unlike some states, it doesn’t require an additional license. “We have to sit for a board of exam, just like nursing does,” she said.

Catayas said he studied as a generalist, but since coming to the U.S. he’s had to learn more microbiology. He also went through a rigorous visa screening process, including English proficiency tests.

Asked what interested them in working outside his home country, Catayas said salary. “Back home, our salary is not enough for us to start a family,” he said.

Catayas said a month’s salary in the Philippines was equivalent to a day’s pay here. However, the cost of living was also lower back home.

He admitted feeling homesick sometimes, but said social media allows him to stay in touch with his three siblings, two aunts, and an uncle.

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Florante’s girlfriend, Sharre Ann Lumagbas, is also a lab tech and is currently in the process of applying for her work permit, so she can join him at the Park Rapids hospital.

“We’ve been together for, like, nine years now,” he said.

Catayas also has a brother, Jacob, who has lived in Toronto, Canada for seven years and recently passed the U.S. test for nurses.

“Hopefully, he will transfer here, but his license is in New Mexico,” said Catayas. “So, he’ll have to take a test for another state.”

“We want him to come here,” Fjosne agreed, hinting that Jacob could room with Florante in his apartment within a 10-minute walk of the hospital.

Catayas said his plan is to stay with CHI St. Joseph’s Health for as long as his services are needed.

As for what he has learned here that he would take back with him to the Philippines, he mentioned the policies that regulate lab processes, making things easier and better organized.

A good experience

Fjosne said she thinks the situation that brought Catayas and CHI together is here to stay.

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Florante Catayas, at left, said he enjoys working with lab manager Darcy Fjosne at CHI St. Joseph's Health in Park Rapids.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

“We’re very much a behind-the-scenes profession,” she said. “Most people, their only interaction with us, is when we go to draw their blood at the bedside. So, there’s not a lot of knowledge about the profession out there, and when anybody’s looking at health care (careers), we honestly aren’t one of the higher-paid ones. For the amount of education that’s required, the pay just doesn’t correlate well with it.

“So, people are looking more into nursing or radiology, or even another field, like the therapies, that usually don’t have a night shift or weekends, no holiday type things. That’s what people are looking for.”

The lab currently has job postings open, Fjosne said, and they are not restricting applicants to any nationality – although American candidates can start sooner.

She said working with Catayas has been a great cultural experience for laboratory staff. “He has a great personality, and we love having him with us,” she said.

The lengthy process of sponsoring his visa was worthwhile, she said. “Sharre’s project is even longer,” Fjosne added, “because she had a lot of delays because of COVID shutdowns over in the Philippines, and having to COVID test before you can fly between provinces to do all the components that were required.”

Thanks to the high example Catayas has set, she said, “We’re very excited to have Sharre coming, and we would definitely welcome others from the Philippines.

“If we could keep him on longer than the current contract is, I think we’d all be overjoyed.”

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Related Topics: PARK RAPIDSHEALTHCAREPEOPLE
Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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