Tools, Technologies and Training for Healthcare Laboratories

Of Milestones, Maturing, and Making Progress

How do you thank a thousand people for their birthday wishes? The Westgard gives it a try

Of Milestones, Maturing, and Making Progress

James O. Westgard, PhD
December 2021

2021 westgard mustaches
Westgard and Westgard, with one sporting a "No-shave November" mustache, half-jest and half-tribute to the original mustache in the family

Personally, 2021 was a series of milestones. The “Westgard Rules” turned 40. Myself, I turned 80. It’s been a strange year to mark these anniversaries. I am lucky enough to be in good health, to be retired, to be blessed with my wife Joan and my children and grandchildren.

And am I also so fortunate to have so many dear colleagues, peers, and well-wishers around the world. Sten tells me that when he posted articles about my birthday on various Facebook and LinkedIn and social media accounts, there were thousands of likes, good wishes, and messages of gratitude and good cheer. (He tells me these things because I am actually not on Facebook – I’m old fashioned that way, and I let Joan and Sten keep me up to speed when it comes to social media)

This is quite a lot to take in, for a boy who grew up on a North Dakota farm. To be honest, accepting praise is not something I enjoy. I was raised not to boast. A farmer was only as good as his next crop – and nature was a fickle beast. Bragging about your harvest only tempted fate to lay you low next year.

But I want to thank you all. Thanks for the “Westgard Rules” compliments. Thanks for the birthday wishes. It has been touching to receive messages from former students who still remember my lectures, to colleagues who still remember working with me, and especially to those laboratorians around the world who heard a lecture, who read a paper, who saw something on the web, and felt moved, inspired, motivated to do a little bit better in their work.

My pandemic life is rather circumspect. I am, again, very lucky to be healthy, to have gotten my vaccinations and my boosters, and be able to live in relatively low risk here in Madison. But as we approach close to 2 years of the SARS-COV-2 virus, I have not been traveling, nor going to large gatherings. So it’s an interesting juxtaposition, to be physically quite isolated while being virtually bathed with electronic greetings from the globe.

I so appreciate your messages, your stories of how your laboratory is faring. But if I am honest, I miss seeing you. For all the zooms, teams, webexes and other virtual gatherings we have been able to give these last 20 months, there is much to be said for shaking a hand, looking eye to eye, and sharing a coffee (better yet a beer). Most of the best work in my career came from sabbaticals, where I traveled to another institution and invested my time in getting to know a new and different group of peers and working hard with them to develop new ideas, techniques and approaches. The virtual world offers more fleeting contact, but lacks the depth of connection that can only be achieved in person. That’s a lesson not only for your career, but for your life. It’s better to be social than to be on social media.

Maybe the best way I can accept your thanks and your appreciation is to return the compliments:

  • I wish you a long career in laboratory medicine. In a profession where we are now constantly nose to the grindstone, paying so much attention to the shortest TAT, I hope you have the freedom to step back, to take a long view, to invest in a project that requires more time than its takes to watch a tik-tok or a youtube video or Insta story (I actually don’t know what those are, but my grandchildren tell me about it). We get measured in minutes, but it takes much longer to make progress.
  • I wish you patience and fortitude – you will need it. You have chosen a profession not known for fame or fortune. And even as a minor, minor figure of note, I can tell you that persistence accomplished more for me than anything gained by my notoriety.
  • I wish you a set of colleagues you can trust and who help you grow. In science, you always stand on the shoulders of giants. There are always co-authors, collaborators, and colleagues who encourage, critique, and help shape your ideas. Even the unsung journal reviewers, who force you to rewrite (and sometimes rewrite and rewrite) your paper, can help refine your work. I also have had my fair share of vociferous critics who motivate me to do better, to actively defend my ideas, and to continue to work hard and move forward, even in retirement. Just today, December 13, 2021, we have two papers being published in Clinica Chimica Acta, authored together with Sten and Hassan Bayat, a colleague and collaborator from Iran. (I admit that the internet and e-mail make it possible to work together at great distances once you find colleagues who have common interests.)
  • I also wish you (some) obstacles – you won’t enjoy them, but they will inspire you, especially if you have any of that Scandi-Lutheran perseverance in your blood. Sometimes the pushback you get from trying a new approach is a useful signal that the question/issue/problem being addressed is indeed important and worthy of further efforts.
  • I wish that you address something in laboratory medicine where there is no current answer – or where there the answer of the moment is a bad one. That’s what my whole career was about – tackling problems that needed to be solved. Finding gaps in our field of knowledge and helping to fill them in, or looking at how poor one of our practices was and trying to find better ways of doing things.
  • I wish you find purpose in making progress over making profits. Most of my biggest contributions to laboratory medicine were not patented, copyrighted, or turned into start-up companies. They were offered freely to everyone. It may be hard to believe this, especially for those of you who came into the laboratory profession in the 21st century, but we once thought more of about the common good than about cornering a market. If I created “Westgard Rules” today, undoubtedly that would be commercialized. You would have had to pay a royalty or license every time you wanted to use them. But that’s not why we created them. We wanted to help all laboratories do better. It was part of the reason I worked at the University of Wisconsin, part of the mission of public universities and public institutions – to help better the world for everyone. That kind of idea has lost currency today, but I wish it would make a comeback. Perhaps you can help.
  • Finally, let me wish you the chance to thank others. Learning to be grateful – to accept grace – is important. I have reached the age where many of my colleagues are no longer with us. I know now that it’s always a good time to say a kind word, it’s never embarrassing to praise someone’s impact on your life, and telling someone you love them never gets old.

From all the Westgards, we thank you. We wish you happy holidays, good fortune for the new year, and hope that we will all soon see each other in person in 2022.