Tools, Technologies and Training for Healthcare Laboratories

In Memoriam: Elsa F. Quam, MT (ASCP)

In July, our dear colleague, Elsa Quam, passed away. Some of her laboratory friends share their reminiscences.

In Memoriam: Elsa F. Quam, MT (ASCP), A Twinkling Star

Neill Carey, Carl Garber, David Koch, and James O. Westgard

We pause to celebrate the life and contributions of Elsa Quam, one of the Medical Technologists I worked with on the original publication of Method Validation by the American Society of Medical Technology in 1978.

At that time, the Editor-in-Chief for the American Journal of Medical Technology, endorsed our Method Evaluation guidance as “a singular and proven approach to one of the most frustrating and time-consuming tasks in clinical chemistry – the evaluation of existing methods and selection of new ones.” She noted that the value is two-fold – “it reinforces what experienced technologists already know about selecting the best methods and provides them with a systematized approach, and [it] serves as a teaching device for those who do not know how to begin unraveling the many methods available today… As an instructional tool, the [approach] is unparalleled.”

The reason the material resonated with Medical Technologists was the important contributions from Elsa and two other MTs, Marian Hunt and Diane de Vos. They provided the grounding for a practical and workable approach in the laboratory. Two other co-authors, Neill Carey and Carl Garber, were clinical chemists who would go on to be recognized for their skills in analytical quality management and leadership roles in the Evaluation Protocols area of the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI). Elsa also worked for many years with Dr. David Koch who later became President of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC). As clinical chemists, we all valued having Elsa and our other MTs train us in the real-world of laboratory practices.

All of us were involved with teaching and training others to improve their skills in method evaluation and quality management. Beginning in the mid-1970s, we taught workshops at national meetings of the AACC and ASMT (now ASCLS). The original workshop has evolved over time, but is still part of the AACC annual meeting today under Dr. Koch’s tutelage and remains the longest-running workshop in the history of the AACC. Elsa was an instructor at one of the first national AACC presentations of that workshop in San Francisco in 1975, where I remember celebrating afterwards with Mai-Tais at the Trader Vic restaurant. I’m sure we reviewed our presentations under the influence of continuous quality improvement.

Elsa was a vital part of the Clinical Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics for her entire career. In my early years, I decided on a strategy of hiring the best and brightest of the Medical Technology students I was teaching. Elsa was the first. In today’s world, she would have become a doctor, but in those days smart young women who were interested in medical careers had fewer choices, usually to be a nurse, or if scientifically inclined, to be a Medical Technologist. We – the clinical laboratory – were lucky to be able to attract those women and develop an incredibly smart and dedicated staff.

Elsa was a true star in the field of clinical laboratory science! She always had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye as she went about her work in the laboratory, from her start as an MT in chemistry to her rise to laboratory supervisor. She developed special skills and expertise in quality management, beginning with the evaluation of methods at the time when automated analytic systems were becoming the mainstay for clinical chemical analyses. She was the go-to problem-solver when things got too complicated for the rest of us. I always worried that when Elsa retired we would lose the institutional knowledge of ages and would need at least three people to replace her.

Elsa was part of a Swiss family from New Glarus, WI. Her family ran the Swiss Miss Textile Mart that sold fabrics and lace. I remember when Joan and I were getting married, we went to the Swiss Miss to get the lace for her wedding dress and only a couple years later I encountered Elsa as a student in one of my MT classes. Elsa was proud of her Swiss heritage and was a good ambassador for New Glarus, as well as for the clinical laboratories at UW. She made us all proud and always provided a cheerful light through difficult times. We extend our condolences to her husband Byron, their four sons, and many grandchildren.

She has left us too soon and we already miss her.

From Dave Koch:

I was blessed to work side-by-side with Elsa nearly every day during the time I was a UW Hospital & Clinics. Elsa was very bright, but also down-to-earth, a fantastic combination that meant she always had a practical solution to the daily problems in the clinical chemistry laboratory. She was as capable by herself as about three other people. I learned a lot from Elsa, especially from her kind-hearted approach to people.


From Neill Carey:

Elsa was one of the nicest and most competent people I have ever met. When I arrived on the scene [at UW Clinical Labs] in 1972, she was already a resource for the lab. One of her endearing characteristics was that she would smile when she offered an idea or when she corrected someone. She was a truly positive person and it was really pleasant to work with her.

From Carl Garber:

I joined the laboratory staff at UW after obtaining my PhD in analytical chemistry in 1976. I recall once of my first conversations with Elsa. My wife had just presented me with a graduation gift, a programmable Texas Instrument pocket calculator, and I was busy crunching some data on my calculator when Elsa came by, noticed that I was writing down some regression statistics, the regression line equation, and the correlation coefficient. With a nice smile, she said to me: “You know, we don’t think the correlation coefficient is very useful here.” I replied that I guess I had a lot to learn and I was writing it down just because it was in the output. And yes, thanks to the staff, like Jim, Neill, Marian, Elsa and Diane, I received an excellent “on-the-job” education on laboratory statistics. And here we are, nearly 50 years later, still engaged in conversations over the use (or abuse and misuse) of the correlation coefficient [see AACC Artery Open Forum, August 20, 2020, discussion of statistics]. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Elsa and only wish her family comfort in the days ahead.