As a young man, Gary Dow entertained the idea of studying Veterinary Science but interviewed for the trainee technologist position at Whangārei Hospital in 1968 and took the job when he worked out, he could get paid while training and sitting exams to qualify.
"I was told the position was mine if I wanted it. But I said I would give it some thought. The then pathologist said, "Well, you are really only dealing with human animals, and after being shown around the laboratory, I liked what I saw."
Gary spent the rest of his 54-year career working in Northland DHB laboratories, apart from a short five-month stint picking kiwifruit and working in the shipbuilding industry after being made redundant along with many others as a result of the privatisation of the Whangārei Hospital Laboratory.
In that time, Gary said laboratory work and practices have vastly changed, "Firstly, everything was done manually. Including making media, chemical reagents, calculating patient results, and collecting blood for agar plates from each other when making plates to grow organisms. Glass tubes, water baths and mouth pipetting were also the order of the day. Tubes and containers were autoclaved, washed, sterilised and reused, and all patient reports and copies plus delivery of such were done manually.
"We used empty Milo tins and put some plates into these with a lit wax candle to provide an increased CO2 atmosphere which some organisms' growth was enhanced by.
"There were no photocopiers or computers or electronic sending of results. We processed TB specimens and identified positive cultures on-site along with a variety of swab types, urines, CSFs, blood cultures, drinking waters and oyster farm waters, query food poisoning samples, and estate management samples for legionella."
He said that manual testing had been replaced by various companies providing panels of tests to identify organisms isolated from specimens more quickly and accurately, and the nature and variety of specimen types have also increased over time.
"In other areas like biochemistry, haematology, coagulation and histology, there have been marked improvements in capabilities in analysers and new techniques which tell us more about things and much quicker than manual techniques of yesteryear. The Laboratory has also taken on workloads of renal, oncology, urology, and mental health services, to name a few over the years, which involves a much greater workload, complexities and demands."
During his time as charge scientist of Microbiology, Gary introduced further testing for chlamydia antigen, rotavirus antigen, anti-hyaluronidase antibody testing, TPHAs, a biohazard cabinet, a CO2 incubator and two Jouan water-jacketed incubators, which he said last 20 years compared to NZ Contherm incubators which lasted about 18 months and then had to be replaced. He also was involved with the commissioning of the theatres doing particle counts, and colony counts with a machine from the National Institute now called the ESR.
"Microbiology does PCR testing now, which is something our first medical microbiologist wanted me to apply to the Board to go to the USA and learn decades ago."
He also convinced management to purchase an automated blood culture incubator that would alarm when growth was detected in a blood culture bottle saving the increased workload of manually sub-culturing the bottles at pre-defined intervals.
"Organisms we once reported as normal flora or commensals have over time become pathogens with various new interventions in medicine. TB (atypical) isolates which were regarded as non-pathogenic, became pathogens when HIV arrived."
Gary said inappropriate use of antibiotics for infections has led to multi-resistance amongst organisms, and techniques have been developed to identify the enzymes and other mechanisms of resistance in vitro.
He also helped set up Infection Control and the Occupational Health and Safety Service at Northland DHB and the Sexually Transmitted Infection clinic and spent three years as the Infection Control Committee chairman.
In 1988 Gary was nominated by the Board and accepted by the university to complete a Diploma in Health Administration from Massey University, which was a first for the Laboratory.
He was also asked to set up and monitor Infectious Disease serology in 2009, which he continued to do until he left, adding Hepatitis C and HIV serology to Hepatitis B antigen and antibody to the new Cobas analyser purchased in 2008.
From 1975 until 1995, Gary was the charge technologist of Microbiology at Whangārei Hospital and 1978-1991 a Hospital Welfare Society Committee Member, 1983-1995 Deputy Supervising Charge Technologist and 1992-1995 Chairman of the Northland Area Health Board Infection Control Committee.
Between 1995 and 1996, Gary was a staff technologist at Dargaville and Bay of Islands Hospital Laboratories. Then he was the manager of Regional Laboratories from 1996 until 1999 when he became charge laboratory technologist at Dargaville Hospital Laboratory until he moved to the role of medical laboratory scientist at Whangārei Hospital Laboratory in 2004. He remained in that role until retiring this year and was also charge scientist Infectious Disease Serology from 2009-2022.
Gary appreciated being able to help people with recovery from treatable conditions and finding causes for their hospital admission, monitoring some medications, and confirming the correct diagnosis for people. As well as being part of emergencies where blood or blood products are required, for surgery, both elective and emergencies and motor vehicle accidents etc., where quick action is necessary to save lives.
He is very proud to have been able to help troubleshoot any analyser problems, so service downtime was kept to a minimum. He also loved being a part of breakthroughs and improvements in laboratory capabilities as they evolved.
After such a dynamic and successful career, Gary is enjoying a ‘seven-day weekend’ where he can get out walking, spend time in his garden, doing some landscaping and have more time with his grandchildren. He said he might even get into some community work or local politics and teach karate. But, most of all, he plans to enjoy life.